Six people who recently registered to vote in Weeki Wachee by listing a hotel as their residence are getting $25,000 homestead exemptions on homes elsewhere in the county.
State law says taxpayers seeking the exemption cannot list a different address on their voter registration cards.
And Hernando County Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek said the conflicts must be resolved immediately.
"Let's put it this way," Mazourek said, "they've got to make a decision."
If the voters don't resolve the conflict themselves, Mazourek said his office will likely deny their homestead exemption requests.
Mazourek began looking into the issue after reading a story in the Hernando Times on Sunday detailing the recent increase in Weeki Wachee's voting population from seven voters to 20. Mazourek said newspaper articles frequently prompt such queries in his office.
All 13 of the new arrivals listed 6172 Commercial Way _ the Best Western Weeki Wachee Resort _ as their address. The seven voters already on the roll list their address as 6131 Commercial Way _ the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction.
Mazourek found that six individuals listed at the hotel had homestead exemptions on five properties:
Debbie Dunsmore, whose homestead address is 10238 Hoover St.
Lance E. Emerson, 11481 Ehrenwald Drive.
Jerry F. and Elke B. Harris, 483 Cressida Circle.
Joseph Maresca, 299 Preston Hollow Drive.
Oliver L. Noel, 14115 Lawrence St.
County property owners were recently mailed cards asking them to state whether they no longer qualify for a homestead exemption if their address had changed. The cards state that claiming an exemption where one is not warranted can result in the levying of back taxes, plus financial penalties.
"They have the opportunity to sign those cards requesting a cancellation," Mazourek said.
Florida law is notably vague on how residency is established. It can be established in one day and hotels can qualify as a permanent residence. But putting a definitive legal answer on a residency question often must be left to a court.
Dunsmore, who was not available for comment, is a former Weeki Wachee Springs employee fired from the park under disputed circumstances last summer. Park officials said she was "bad-mouthing" the attraction _ a charge Dunsmore denies.
She filed a complaint with the state Commission on Ethics against Robyn Anderson, the park's general manager and the mayor of Weeki Wachee. The commission said the claim was beyond their jurisdiction because it did not relate to Anderson's public duties as mayor.
The other voters with address conflicts have ties _ as employees, former employees or an employee's spouse _ to Blue Stone Real Estate and Construction Development Corp., a company owned by James DeMaria, who also owns the Best Western.
DeMaria has been a sharp critic of the city's tax increase, its legal fight to condemn Florida Water utilities in Spring Hill and of Mayor Anderson.
Questions to DeMaria and the five associated with Blue Stonewho have issues were referred to Blue Stone's corporate attorneys at the Hogan law firm.
Weeki Wachee city attorney Joe Mason said the fact the new voters already have an attorney suggests they anticipated questions about the legality of their residency. He also said zoning laws probably prohibit more than one person from establishing residency in a hotel.
George Angeliadis, an attorney with the firm, would not discuss legal issues _ other than to say Mason has a tendency to speculate on issues only a judge can decide.
"These people are concerned about what's going on in Weeki Wachee, and they decided to establish residency," Angeliadis said.
Scott Guthman, who is manager of the Best Western, said it is only natural for people who aren't experts in a complicated matter to seek an attorney's advice.
None of the five with ties to either DeMaria's company _ Blue Stone or the company that owns the hotel _ were under any orders when they changed their voting status, Guthman said. Nor are they being rewarded financially. However, they will pay a discounted, long-term room rate at the hotel. He wouldn't discuss other aspects of their living arrangements.
Guthman insists that the voter influx is a response to the actions of the Weeki Wachee City Commission. They are concerned about the commission's recent decision to double property taxes to pay for its legal attempts to take over Florida Water, a battle that resulted in $196,000 in legal fees, not counting legal bills not yet received.
He noted that commissioners themselves pay no property taxes _ since they live in cottages owned by Weeki Wachee Springs _ and yet they doubled taxes on businesses in the city that are owned by people who live outside the city, he noted.
"It was more people coming to us who were upset with the way the city was being run and operated and taxing people without giving them any kind of representation," Guthman said.
_ Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.