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Legal sideshow over, city should quit stage
A Times Editorial
Published February 22, 2008
When they signed off an agreement Monday that will transform Weeki Wachee Springs into a state park later this year, officials with the Department of Environmental Protection and the tiny city that owns the attraction took a much-needed step to ensure the institution's natural and financial resources will be more secure. That is good news for those who value the nostalgic, recreational and ecological treasures of this world-famous tourist attraction just a few miles north of urbanized west Pasco.
The takeover by the state, slated for Nov. 1, should bring to an end the four-year legal sideshow between Weeki Wachee and its landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which bought the spring from St. Petersburg for $16-million in 2001. The water district had sought a judicial answer to the very fundamental question of whether the city of Weeki Wachee could legally accept ownership of Weeki Wachee Springs, a private, for-profit business. This tentative agreement makes that question moot.
However, nothing in the agreement signed Monday addresses the continued status of the city, which was granted a municipal charter by the Legislature 40 years ago just so it could erect billboards on state highways. So, there remains the lingering question: Does the city, with a population of only five, even need to exist?
One can probably guess the answer from business owners who have dutifully paid taxes - and endured dramatic millage increases - to the in-name-only city for many years in the belief that what is good for the attraction is good for their bottom lines. But now that the DEP is taking over the park, it should be able to take care of its own advertising, upkeep, overhead and other operational costs.
Once this deal is complete and the books are audited and found to be in order, the city of Weeki Wachee has no need to continue to collect revenue. Most of the money taken in is spent on the salary of the city clerk, and she easily could be absorbed into the DEP's work force.
Revoking Weeki Wachee's charter makes more sense now than ever. That will require a special bill in the Legislature, and Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, should team up to sponsor it, making it effective the day DEP takes possession of the park.
In the meantime, we applaud the cooperative effort by park officials, the DEP and the water management district to preserve and protect the cultural and environmental integrity of this inimitable Florida resource.