The tiny town of St. Leo is poised to become even smaller. The Florida Legislature's approval of a local bill from Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, paves the way for the owners of 85 homes and two dozen empty lots in tony Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club to separate from the municipality and be governed exclusively by Pasco County. It's far from an ideal scenario — St. Leo will be left with a reduced tax base to pay for its government — but it beats the alternative of dissolving the town entirely.
The Legislature was right to accommodate the locals. St. Leo, incorporated by the Legislature in 1891, deserves a better fate than being obliterated in an antitax dispute championed by interlopers. This issue has been debated for nearly eight years and surfaced after the Lake Jovita Joint Venture began its 871-home development, including 109 lots within the town's boundaries, in 1998. Currently, the town's population is 1,369 people with 196, or 14 percent, residing within Lake Jovita.
Those within the gated community complain of receiving relatively few services for their property tax investment, and the idea of disbanding the town became a very real possibility after Lake Jovita residents won a majority of the five commission seats in the past two municipal elections. Basically, the message became, "Let us leave or we'll take you down with us." The rest of the commission acquiesced, after previously trying to placate Lake Jovita's fiscal concerns, and commissioners unanimously agreed to ask for state permission to de-annex the neighborhood. (The Legislature needed to bless the maneuver because the proposed boundary changes do not conform to state rules controlling municipal contraction.)
Lake Jovita property owners will escape the town's modest property tax rate, 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, and franchise fees and municipal taxes on their utility bills. But, they'll be assessed Pasco County's annual $47-per-house stormwater fee and have to arrange their own trash collection service from a private hauler that could run roughly $132 annually. And, building new homes on the undeveloped lots will become more costly because the county's schedule of impact fees is substantially higher than the town's fees.
Certainly there are logistical issues to be resolved before the contraction can be consummated. Most notably, the town needs to have new commission candidates available to step in and serve the town since the current majority will need to resign their seats after they no longer live in town.
That shouldn't be too difficult. The town of St. Leo has always had capable people who are willing to serve and who are ready to put the greater good of the community before the interests of a privileged minority.