City must be separate from tourist attraction

Published May 30, 2007

L est we forget the obvious, we are reminded again that the city of Weeki Wachee exists in name only. The Florida Auditor General's Office recently issued its sec ond report in two years about Weeki Wachee, which is the only place on the planet where taxpayers own a water park and a tourist attraction inhabited by mermaids.

The legality of that ownership has been in question for several years as the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the land on which the amusements sit, challenges the city's peculiar asset in Circuit Court. The quirky situation, which blurs the line between public and private interests, also is what prompted state officials and legislators to ask the auditor general to take a close look at operations in the city, which has only nine residents.

The initial audit in 2005 listed 20 items that needed correction. Since then the city has rectified only two of the auditor's concerns and partially addressed seven others. The rest of the recommendations either have been ignored or dismissed with the shell-game defense that the state doesn't understand the difference between the functions of the city and the business.

That is understandable because the city, since its inception 40 years ago, has existed only to serve the financial interests of the business, Weeki Wachee Springs, LLC. The city was created by the Legislature as a way to circumvent a law that allowed only municipalities to advertise on billboards on state highways. That clever sidestep may have been convenient then, but it is unnecessary now.

The latest audit shows, among other things:

- Weeki Wachee canceled more than half of its regularly scheduled commission meetings and failed to give proper legal notice of them in the first place.

- More than a quarter-million dollars in no-bid work was paid to the husband of the park's finance manager - and deputy city clerk - for doing renovations and repairs.

- Bookkeeping, including payroll records and contracted services, remains sloppy.

Unfortunately, the auditor general has no authority to force Weeki Wachee to take its municipal duties seriously. It likely will take a judge or the Legislature to do that, and we wish one or both would tackle some or all of these lingering problems.

The park reportedly has increased its revenues since 2002 and 2003, when it reported losses of about $350, 000 for those two years. That's good news for Hernando County; the attraction and water park continue to generate income and draw tourists. And the name recognition from the City of Mermaids is a positive intangible for the region.

But the business should succeed on its own, not on the backs of the businesses that pay taxes to a city that does not demonstrate its responsibility to them.

After the City Commission doubled the property tax rate in 2003, the state Legislature limited its ability to raise property taxes or expand its boundaries. Those limitations stopped short of what really needs to be done, which is to abolish the city's charter. The latest report from the auditor general should be sufficient to compel Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, to finally stop Weeki Wachee, the business, from exploiting Weeki Wachee, the city.