Weeki Wachee shrugs at audit

Published May 26, 2007

WEEKI WACHEE - Two years later, the city of Weeki Wachee still has not made a host of changes deemed necessary by the Florida Auditor General's Office.

A follow-up report recently released by the agency shows that, among other issues, the City of Mermaids still does not properly record payroll and City Commission meetings -- if they were held at all -- or submit timely annual audits required by law.

But where outraged citizens in some cities might vote commission members or the mayor out of office in the face of such revelations, things are a little different in Weeki Wachee -- population 9 -- said Jim Dwyer, audit manager with the state.

"We make recommendations, and that's the end of it for us," Dwyer said. "Beyond not filing an annual financial audit report, there's no real penalty for them. Weeki Wachee is a unique situation because it's so small."

The follow-up review was completed in February to determine the city's progress. Of the 20 findings in the 2005 report, requested by then-state Rep. Dave Russell, the city has adequately addressed only two.

The city owns the mermaid attraction and adjacent water park, donated by the previous owner. The land the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction sits on is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which leases it to Weeki Wachee.

Weeki Wachee and Swiftmud have been embroiled in a three-year court battle that is set to resume at the end of August. Among other issues, Swiftmud questions whether the city can legally own and operate the attraction.

The report states that the city has done little to remedy the financial threat it faces from owning the attraction. Also, the city has not addressed whether it should continue to operate as an incorporated municipality, as previously questioned by the state.

In 2005, the report indicated, expenditures exceeded revenue by $6,228 for the city's general fund, and by $31,111 for the attraction.

The report also stated that the attraction showed operating losses of about $177,000 and $174,000 respectively for the 2002 and 2003 calendar years.

Since then, the park has increased admission fees and started collecting parking fees from visitors. But, as the follow up audit report notes, the increases weren't made with any sort of fiscal plan for the future.

Also, no formal review was conducted to determine any options for decreasing park expenditures.

As for the city, the follow-up report stated that 10 of the city's 18 regular meetings were canceled. The city did not enact an ordinance declaring regular meetings as suggested, either.

Also, competitive bids for contracted services were not used, including $309,731 in repair and renovation costs -- $263,373 of which went to the husband of the park's finance manager, who also is the deputy city clerk.

While he had not yet seen the follow-up report, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Friday that the ultimate question to answer is why the City of Mermaids continues to be a city at all.

Fasano worked with Russell, who is currently a Hernando County commissioner, three years ago to pass a bill in the Legislature that limited the city's powers. The move was in response to the city's attempted takeover of the Florida Water Services utility in Spring Hill and a doubling of the city property tax rate in 2003.

The bill revoked the city's power to exercise eminent domain or change its boundaries through annexation and put limits on how much it could raise taxes every year.

"Weeki Wachee should be a place where people go for relaxation and bring their children," Fasano said. "But it should have never been made a city."

Nearly 50 years ago, as a marketing ploy, the mermaid attraction was granted city status so it would have a place on the map, Fasano said. While it may have been a good thing then, it has no relevance now.

"It provides no services," he said. "It should be kept as an amusement park as long as they're able to financially survive."

Park spokesman John Athanason could not be reached by phone Friday evening to discuss the auditor general's report.

In an interview earlier this year, Robyn Anderson, the mayor and general manager, said that the previous audit findings were merely suggestions, not requirements.

"Those are recommendations we don't have to follow," Anderson said. "We did implement a system which tracks inventory. Some we're following; others were not applicable."

Other findings in the report include:

- Contrary to state law, the city still has not filed annual financial audits for the 2002-03 fiscal year with the auditor general. The 2003-04 fiscal year report was filed in April 2006, seven months late.

- Payroll time sheets from November 2005 to November 2006 examined by the auditor general show that employees continue to manually change their time worked without approval from a supervisor.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

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Get the full report

The full state auditor general's report on the city of Weeki Wachee can be viewed online at www.state.fl.us/audgen.