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On the Weeki Wachee watch

In its 2002 city election, five people cast votes in Weeki Wachee.

They marked their picks for the three City Commission seats on paper ballots and handed them to the city clerk, who counted the votes herself.

Mayor Robyn Anderson says she cannot remember if the results were posted on a bulletin board or if the clerk simply announced them person to person. But when you have three candidates for three seats in a town of nine people, there's not a lot of suspense.

Nevertheless, things are changing in Weeki Wachee.

Hernando County's representatives in Tallahassee proposed a major overhaul of the government in Weeki Wachee last week after an outcry of abuses of power in the town famous for its smallness and its namesake mermaid attraction, Weeki Wachee Springs.

If the overhaul is adopted by the state Legislature, Weeki Wachee's next scheduled election, in 2006, will be run by the Hernando County supervisor of elections. Residents will cast their City Commission votes at precincts in Spring Hill or on Shoal Line Boulevard, where they normally vote in county, state and national elections.

"I guess my name gets to be on the ballot with the big boys," Anderson said.

State Sen. Mike Fasano said the change in election responsibilities would ensure that city officials are not counting their own votes. That is especially important given that 13 new voters have recently registered in the city as part of an effort to thwart the power of the current city commissioners.

Beyond elections, Weeki Wachee would get new financial oversight. Since 1998, the city has failed four times to submit to the state an annual financial report.

Such inattention to details cost Weeki Wachee $2,100 in revenue it could have received through a state revenue sharing program. More than that, it was one more example of how the city has paid scant attention to the normal financial practices of government.

The local legislators assigned the task of future financial oversight to Hernando County Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai. But on Friday, Nicolai said she is not convinced she can legally take the responsibility, given that she is a county official, and Weeki Wachee retains the status of an independent city. She intends to discuss the matter further with the delegation.

Both Nicolai and elections supervisor Annie Williams were caught off guard by the new responsibilities planned for them by the state representatives and senators. Neither had been consulted before the lawmakers issued their list of reforms for the little city.

Williams says it should be no problem to run a city election for Weeki Wachee, which now has 20 voters on the roll thanks to an influx of new registrants.

Hernando County Commissioner Nancy Robinson, who pitched both the election and financial reforms to the state lawmakers, said the details of the financial oversight can be worked out, even if it means another state agency gets the task.

"The issue isn't who does it, but rather that the oversight gets done," she said.

Beyond elections and finance, the delegation is proposing to limit Weeki Wachee's property tax rate to 3 mills _ or $3 per every $1,000 of real assessed property value.

That is still higher than the $2.55 rate the city adopted in October, which was more than double its rate the year before.

Despite the room for tax growth, state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, said he wants Weeki Wachee officials to keep their promise to reduce their taxes to original levels once their legal bills are paid. Before the October increase, the tax rate was $1.15 per $1,000.

Those legal bills, currently approaching $300,000, are a big part of why local lawmakers have Weeki Wachee under the most scrutiny since its birth as a city in 1966.

Nearly $200,000 was spent as the city tried unsuccessfully to condemn the Florida Water Services utility system in Spring Hill. That takeover attempt, at a time when Hernando County was seeking to buy the water and sewer systems, led delegation members to propose stripping Weeki Wachee of its ability to condemn or annex property.

The rest of the legal fees, estimated to be more than $100,000, comes from City Attorney Joe Mason. They represent his charges for helping the city acquire the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction and for staving off the park's closure by its landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Robinson had asked for the city's dissolution in December. But after legal research found that the county could be held responsible for the legal expenses of a defunct city, she changed tactics.

When the legislative delegation met Wednesday, she merely asked for new limits on Weeki Wachee's power. The delegation had already come to that conclusion. And both county and state officials seem pleased with the outcome.

"Our goals can be achieved through the (city) charter amendments," Robinson said, "and that's fine, as far as I'm concerned."

Anderson said she is willing to work with the new limitations and requirements placed on the city. She says the city's finances will be put in order and its focus will remain on the tourist attraction, and not ventures like the utility takeover.

"We're content where we are," Anderson said.

_ Robert King can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rkingsptimes.com.

New limits

Hernando County's legislative delegation has proposed a bill that would overhaul the city government of Weeki Wachee. Here are its provisions:

+ Caps the city's property tax rate at 3 mills.

+ Removes the power to annex territory.

+ Removes the power to condemn property.

+ Hands control of city elections to the Hernando County supervisor of elections.

+ Gives oversight of city finances to the Hernando County clerk of court.

What's next?

While state legislators resisted the temptation to dissolve the city of Weeki Wachee on Wednesday, some important issues remain unsettled.

+ The state Commission on Ethics has yet to rule on multiple charges of ethical lapses levied against city commissioners. The ruling could still be months away. But if it comes down sharply against the city, lawmakers say they may reconsider getting rid of the city.

+ The tourist attraction must provide the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, with an accounting of its 2003 financial performance by mid February. The park lost $173,000 in 2002.

+ A Jan. 31 Swiftmud deadline for the attraction to disconnect its archaic sewage treatment plant and to tie into the less risky Hernando County sewer system was expected to pass unmet because of permitting delays. Officials say the work can be finished within one day once the permits are in, and Swiftmud officials said they are willing to be patient.

+ Coming out of its off-season for attendance, the park must make a $112,500 lease payment to Swiftmud by the end of April. A missed payment could lead Swiftmud to close the park, but Mayor Robyn Anderson says the money will be there.

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