(ran PW, PS editions of PASCO TIMES)
In the end, what saved the city of Weeki Wachee from being snuffed out of existence was that state lawmakers want Florida's smallest city to clean up its own mess.
To ensure the mess gets no worse, however, Hernando County's representatives in Tallahassee agreed Wednesday to introduce a bill that would put a 3-mill cap on Weeki Wachee's tax rate and end the city's ability to annex or condemn property.
The legislation would also strip the city of the power to run its own elections, giving that instead to the Hernando County Supervisor of Elections. Under the bill, the Hernando County Clerk of Court would oversee the city's finances.
Hernando's 4-member legislative delegation made it clear to Mayor Robyn Anderson and city attorney Joe Mason that Weeki Wachee is fortunate to be avoiding the death penalty.
Their anger _ and incredulity _ comes after a season like no other in the history of the city, which was created by state lawmakers in 1966 so the mermaid attraction at Weeki Wachee Springs could get its name on maps and road signs.
In the past eight months, Weeki Wachee doubled its tax rate, generated nearly $300,000 in legal debts and launched a $53-million lawsuit seeking to condemn the Florida Water utilities in Spring Hill _ a community beyond its borders and with no say in Weeki Wachee government.
Aside from all that, state Sen. Mike Fasano, who represents coastal Hernando County, chastised Weeki Wachee for failing to submit financial reports to the state for the past five years or for failing to ask its city attorney to submit a bill in 2003.
At Fasano's questioning, Mason acknowledged Wednesday that a conservative estimate of his legal bills would top $100,000. That comes in addition to the bills from two other law firms who handled the attempt to takeover Florida Water. Those bills added up to $196,000.
State Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, said if lawmakers did away with the city those bills would fall to Hernando County taxpayers _ a burden he was unwilling to force on them.
"That's a huge concern," Russell said. "That's the only rational reason not to revoke the (city's) charter."
State Rep. Charles Dean, who represents a portion of Hernando County that includes Weeki Wachee, said the city was guilty of "gross mismanagement" and devoid of anything resembling accountability.
"I don't think I've ever heard of anything like this," said Dean, R-Inverness. "If I ran my business that way I'd be indicted or run off in jail."
State Sen. Paula Dockery, whose district includes eastern Hernando County, questioned whether Mayor Anderson _ who doubles as the general manager of the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction _ might actually benefit if the city was erased.
"I don't see where a city is benefitting anybody, especially you," Dockery said.
Anderson said part of the city's chaotic governance is a result of the fact no one inside or out of the government has looked at Weeki Wachee as a real city. Even though she has been mayor since 1999, Anderson said, the job was secondary to managing the tourist attraction for her, as it has been for previous mayor-managers.
"I have made mistakes and I am learning as I go," she said.
Anderson pleaded with the legislators not to dissolve the city. But she struggled to name the benefits the tourist attraction enjoys by keeping the city.
Anderson blamed attorneys at Florida Water for getting the city into its current mountain of legal debt, saying the utility company pulled out of an arrangement for a "friendly," no-cost transfer of the utility to Weeki Wachee in favor of a deal with Hernando County.
She vowed that Weeki Wachee's City Commission would try to put its house in order and the city would never again get involved in any sort of utility takeover bid.
Anderson is currently the subject of several complaints with the state Commission on Ethics. Among other things, those complaints charge that she voted in favor of the city assuming control of the tourist attraction she manages and that provides her free housing.
Fasano also criticized Mason for advising the City Commission to triple the taxes last fall in order to pay its legal fees and expert witnesses. He suggested that Mason advised the city to continue its costly legal fight for the utilities even after a circuit judge ruled against them.
The effort to curtail Weeki Wachee's power will be introduced next week as a bill in the state Legislature, Russell said. If the ethics commission comes out with a strongly negative ruling on the complaints against city officials, Russell said, the possibility exists that the bill could be amended to be even tougher on the city.
The implication was that city may not be beyond having its charter revoked.
Several Hernando County residents who addressed the lawmakers Wednesday asked for just that.
"Let them run the business (of the attraction) but get them out of the political arena," said Edwin Sherman.
Jerry F. Harris, who recently registered to vote in Weeki Wachee after declaring his residency at the Best Western Resort Weeki Wachee across from the attraction, said the survival of the attraction is important to the county. But he objects to the city's lack of accountability.
"The charter of the city has become a power base for abuse," Harris said. "We would ask that you greatly diminish it or remove it."
_ Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.