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Legislature votes to abolish the city of Weeki Wachee

‘When you kill a part of the fabric of a community, the community is lesser for it,' says the city’s attorney.

WEEKI WACHEE — Soon, the only ‘City of Live Mermaids’ will cease to be a real city, but it always will have that attention-grabbing slogan.

The state House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill this month to abolish the city of Weeki Wachee — population 13 — and the governor is expected to agree. State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, sponsored the legislation. He said at several committee presentations that while the city had taxing authority, there was no proof that those who paid taxes to Weeki Wachee received any city benefits in return.

The city limits signs will come down, but there still will be a Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and local addresses that include the place name Weeki Wachee. And the women dressed as mermaids will keep swimming in underwater shows, at least once the park is fully operational again following the coronavirus closures.

Ingoglia has joked in recent months about the mermaids and the city both being under water. The tiny city carries a debt load that could be as high as $1 million.

Questions remain about how to settle the city’s debt after Weeki Wachee is absorbed by Hernando County. No one knows yet how much that might cost the county, which is struggling financially and had to raise its property tax rate by 14 percent last fall.

Weeki Wachee city limits sign
Weeki Wachee city limits sign [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

Ingoglia was careful to include a provision in the bill that only legitimate debts would be transferred to Hernando County. Those boil down to one large legal bill run up by the city’s attorney, Joe Mason, after a series of complicated legal issues years ago. They included a city battle to acquire a utility company and a fight over attraction activities with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owned the springs and surrounding land.

The roadside attraction opened in 1947 and became part of the state park system a dozen years ago, with help from then state attorney general Bill McCullum from Brooksville, who was a friend of Mason’s.

The economic impact statement that accompanied Ingoglia’s bill included a Dec. 17 invoice that Mason submitted to the county for $1,014,359.89.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum listens to Joe Mason (not pictured) before speaking at Weeki Wachee Springs in 2008. Times (2008)
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum listens to Joe Mason (not pictured) before speaking at Weeki Wachee Springs in 2008. Times (2008) [ BOB EAST III | Tampa Bay Times ]

Mason told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he was sad to see the city dissolved, but that transferring its liabilities to the county meant he finally would be paid. In the current fiscal year, the Weeki Wachee City Commission budgeted just $25,000 toward Mason’s bill, making it the city’s largest expense.

Mason’s argument for keeping the city has been consistent. When people meet in other places and ask where someone is from, the city of Weeki Wachee is more widely known than the city of Brooksville or Hernando County, he argued, and that tourism draw would be nice to keep.

"I think it’s going to be a loss of one of the things that brings about tourism in Hernando County ... one of the arrows in the quiver,'' he said. Saying there is a Weeki Wachee community or a Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, rather than a city, ‘doesn’t have the same cachet,'’ he said.

The city was incorporated in 1966. Mason is a fifth-generation native of the area and can’t imagine witnessing its demise.

"We are in uncharted territory,'' Mason said.

The movement to end the city was prompted by Weeki Wachee River advocate Shannon Turbeville. He has been concerned that having three city commissioners — Robyn Anderson, John Athanason and David Hramika — who also hold positions with the state park, created a conflict of interest. Pushing for park tourism and attendance helped plump up the park coffers, he said, but also threatened the fragile spring system that feeds the river.

Before the state undertakes a planned restoration of the Weeki Wachee River, the state should eliminate any factors that could impede that work, Turbeville and other river advocates have said.

"I’m thankful for House Representative Ingoglia, as he wasted no time in learning the facts and sponsored the bill that would permanently remove this unnecessary layer of government and taxation,'' Turbeville said. "The former city benefited few and did nothing for the health of the deteriorated natural resource that it relied upon.''

The county shouldn’t bear the brunt of the city’s debt, Turbeville said, since he believes the city hasn’t been operating legitimately for some time. He believes commissioners did not administer city elections as required.

"Prior to Hernando County inheriting any liabilities of the former city, the state agencies having jurisdiction owe it to the taxpayers to investigate the questions surrounding the legitimacy of the city elections and debts incurred since 2004 that Representative Ingoglia has spoken of,'' Turbeville said.

When asked his reaction to abolishing the city of Weeki Wachee, former state Rep. Dave Russell said: "It’s about time.''

Russell pushed through legislation in 2004 that deeply cut the city’s ability to tax and removed its powers of annexation and eminent domain. He also thought his bill would result in more oversight of city elections, but public records gathered by Turbeville indicate that might not have happened.

Mason said he didn’t know when the last Weeki Wachee City Commission meeting would be or what would happen there. He said he was sad to think the city would simply cease to exist.

"It’s part of the fabric of our community ... part of the ethos, part of the culture,'' Mason said. "When you kill a part of the fabric of a community, the community is lesser for it.''