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Time to end pretense of Weeki Wachee

Weeki Wachee, a pint-sized municipal government that collects $43,000 in annual revenue from the public, provides no goods or services in return, but manages to run up exorbitant legal bills it can't afford to pay, should be expunged.

That was the laudable goal of area legislators, but their plan has been tripped up by an unforeseen legal bill of more than $1.2 million from former city attorney Joe Mason of Brooksville. Instead, legislators recently agreed to a new tack. At the urging of Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the Legislature will consider stripping the city of its authority to charge an ad valorem tax above 0.001 mill.

Though revoking the city's charter is more desirable, capping the tax rate at next to nothing is intended to protect Hernando County from assuming the city's unreasonable debt run up years earlier during disputes with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and an ill-conceived attempt to acquire Florida Water Services.

The city government became irrelevant after the state absorbed the Weeki Wachee Springs water park and tourist attraction into the state park system in 2008, but other parcels and businesses in the vicinity remain within the municipal boundaries and pay property and tangible taxes.

It's a familiar debate. Legislators retreated from a similar charter-revoking bill in 2004 after questions over unpaid legal bills surfaced. They agreed then to cap the city's property tax rate at 3 mills and to eliminate Weeki Wachee's ability to expand via annexation or condemnation.

At the time, Mason identified his outstanding legal invoices at $200,000. Recently, he said he never submitted a final tally of his bills to the city because it had little ability to pay. He presented his new higher charges in December after the Hernando legislation delegation approved a local bill to dissolve the city.

Legislative action shouldn't be construed as winning the lottery. If Mason had no expectations of being paid when the city existed, why should there be an anticipation of remuneration now?

On its surface, legislators may appear heavy-handed, but there is no reason to espouse local control for a municipal government that pretends to be representative of just one remaining resident and is governed by a charter that allows three interlopers to serve as the elected commission.

The commercial businesses near the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction at U.S. 19 and State Road 50 are paying local municipal property taxes of 2.1 mills to finance city revenues consumed by legal bills, administrative costs and $3,000 for unidentified general government services.

Those businesses shouldn't be on the hook for paying outstanding legal bills run up by a former public-private entity that was so convoluted its then nine on-site employees doubled as the only legal residents of the city and the park manager served as mayor.

The Legislature created the city in the 1960s at the urging of the privately owned Weeki Wachee Springs, which wanted the attraction's name on road maps and highway signs. It is a flimsy reason to charter a government, and legislators are correct to try to erase the missteps of the past without burdening local residents with future financial obligations.

Time to end pretense of Weeki Wachee 01/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 4:01pm]
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