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DELTONA, DEBARY, BONITA SPRINGS: THEY DID IT

 
Published Aug. 26, 2005|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Control your destiny. Put property tax dollars to work close to home. Bring a powerful government seat to your back yard.

Creating a city promises all this but comes with worries: Would another layer of government herald higher taxes? How to pay for garbage pickups and policing? Could a small-town mayor stand up to a powerful county commission?

Floridians increasingly want answers to these questions. Thanks to bountiful sunshine and affordable land, this once-rural state is morphing into a morass of stucco homes and strip malls. The changes spell new needs for government.

Since 1990, 21 new cities have formed in Florida. They range from Miami Gardens, where more than 100,000 residents created the largest majority-black city in the state, to Fort Myers Beach, where fewer than 6,500 residents rallied for a government of their own.

Several of the fledgling cities share common traits with East Hillsborough County, where questions about incorporation have simmered for years.

After two failed ballots, Deltona voters created a city in a bedroom suburb of Orlando. Next door, DeBary residents found that incorporation could protect their identity. Bonita Springs formed a city on the Gulf of Mexico, thinking that local leaders could do more for the quality of life than the distant county government in Fort Myers.

Here are their stories.

Deltona

"Good day, city of Deltona," a receptionist greets callers from a desk on the second floor of a new $8-million municipal complex.

A decade ago, people would have laughed off this vision of the future.

Originally planned as an expansive retirement community, Deltona consists mostly of families commuting to jobs in Orlando. Modest single-family homes line winding streets. A handful of upscale neighborhoods peek out from behind gates.

When they were part of unincorporated Volusia County, residents griped about roads that needed repairs and stormwater drainage issues that went unaddressed.

Skeptics warned that Deltona lacked the necessary tax base to form a city. Businesses accounted for only about 3 percent of the 46 square miles in Deltona's original limits. But advocates contended that the numbers could work by drawing revenue from a tax paid to the county for municipal services.

The incorporation debate raged for almost a decade. Voters twice rejected incorporation proposals. Then in 1995, a city formed with a charter prohibiting long-term debt. This addressed opponents' fears of higher taxes.

Deltona's first mayor, John Masiarczyk, organized his inaugural city meetings out of a cardboard box with "Portable City Hall" scrawled on the side. The county's supervisor of elections donated a blue plastic stool for a speaking platform.

Ten years later, Masiarczyk is completing his fifth and last term as mayor. He has a real office with five leather chairs for visitors inside the city's 3-year-old municipal center, a focal point of the community.

Deltona paid off the $8-million building before opening day, Masiarczyk proudly notes.

Face-lifts for older parks and new recreation facilities top the list of accomplishments. Deltona built a nine-field regional soccer complex. The city pays a turf specialist to keep the grass pristine. A splash park for children is being built.

Roads throughout the city were repaved. To help seniors read the names, the city erected street markers with large print. The corner of each sign features Deltona's logo, a palm tree and a sun.

City Hall has grown from 35 to more than 300 employees. Deltona issues building permits and runs the parks, fire rescue and a water department _ everything but policing, which the Volusia Sheriff's Office handles under contract.

Eventually voters revised the city charter. Residents now trust city leaders with long-term debt. But Deltona has not raised property taxes since incorporating. In fact, the city is proposing its first decrease in taxes for the coming year.

Deltona residents pay less in taxes than neighbors in unincorporated Volusia. That's proof enough the city is working out.

DeBary

Public meetings are held at a town hall down the street. DeBary's white and aqua City Hall barely can hold the six employees who work there.

Soon, the little city hopes to build a bigger City Hall. Until then, cramped quarters are livable. DeBary employs only 16 people, and half work at city parks.

When DeBary became a city in 1993, no one wanted a big government. The small community on the St. Johns River faced possible annexation by nearby Orange City. To protect its identity, the DeBary Civic Association led a campaign to create a city.

That was then.

Today, DeBary's population has doubled to 17,856. In 25 square miles, the city offers a mix of upscale and affordable homes for suburban commuters and retirees.

Just off Interstate 4, Historic DeBary Hall is the city's focal point. Built in 1871 by wine importer Frederick deBary, the restored Victorian hunting lodge and national historic landmark is open for daily tours and special events.

DeBary boasts the lowest ad valorem tax rate in Volusia. Two power plants in the city's limits ensure flush city coffers, which have helped DeBary lower its tax rate three times since incorporating.

To keep costs down, the city also adopted a bare-bones government model. DeBary contracts with Volusia County for fire and emergency rescue, policing and permitting _ everything except parks and recreation.

Local officials ensure that the contract terms are met. If they aren't getting desired service levels, the city can levy penalties.

"If I get two calls in a month on the same piece of property about a garbage pickup, that costs the garbage company $50," said Jimmie Seelbinder, DeBary's finance administrator. "I have control now."

As a city, DeBary's trademark is government with a personal touch.

"Hey, you been feeling okay? Haven't seen you in a while," City Manager Maryann Courson recalls recently greeting a resident. "We're still small enough that we know, for example, where people live. Really."

Bonita Springs

City Manager Gary Price keeps his eyes peeled on the drive back from lunch.

If he sees litter on the street, he makes a phone call to have it picked up right away. Problem addressed.

It wasn't always so easy.

Bonita Springs, on the Gulf of Mexico, had become the darling of developers. Gated subdivisions bloomed in the community at the southern end of Lee County.

As the population exploded, residents new and old began questioning the wisdom in forking over tax dollars to a county based more than 20 miles away in Fort Myers. Meanwhile, Bonita Springs clamored for attention to problems with crime, flooding and unpaved roads.

"Incorporation allowed the people who lived in that area _ and had all of the issues that impacted them personally _ to have a say and a voice in those issues," said Hal Brenner, then-president of the Bonita Springs Incorporation Committee.

Bonita Springs didn't need an expansive government; 60 percent of the city lives in gated subdivisions, many with privately maintained roads. Rather than create and fund its own workforce, Bonita Springs opted to contract with the county and private companies for most services.

Since then, city government has grown from three to 38 staffers. But rising property values have allowed Bonita Springs to roll back property taxes three times.

Now 5{ years old, Bonita Springs remains a baby among cities. But it is learning to speak for itself.

"You have five commissioners for the whole county," said Price, the city manager, noting that the Lee County commissioner representing Bonita Springs lives half a county away. "I have seven council members, including the mayor, for 36 square miles. Who do you think can give the best attention?"

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.