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City dusts off plans to annex neighbors

With costs soaring, its population and developable land dwindling, Crystal River plans to sell its tax-wary residents on the idea that annexation is a must.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- If history is any guide, the city's plan to pursue an aggressive annexation agenda will be formidable. Previous efforts, fraught with poor planning and politics, failed miserably.

But with census figures showing Crystal River's population has decreased in the past decade and with developable land dwindling, officials once again are looking to the unincorporated areas that surround this tax-wary city.

"It's expensive to run a city and the money has to come from somewhere," City Council member Bonnie Taylor said.

"If the costs keep going up but the amount of people living here stays the same or goes down, where is the money going to come from?"

Taylor and her council counterparts hope revenue growth can be achieved through annexation rather than increasing the mill rate. "It's going to be hard to convince people," she acknowledged, "but I think there are some definite benefits."

Formal proposals have not yet been developed but last week the council began to lay the foundation for a public relations campaign to promote its services to outlying regions.

They include the subdivisions north of Woodland Estates and near Turkey Oak Drive and the business districts on U.S. 19 and State Road 44.

"Everything contiguous is going to be open for review," City Manager David Sallee said. "Crystal River is financially secure, no question about it. But we have to be looking at our long-term future because our demand for services is outstripping our existing revenue."

He needed only to look out his window overlooking U.S. 19 to illustrate his point. Cars breezed by, some clearly exceeding the speed limit. Even though the city's population has not grown, additional officers have been needed, in part, to keep pace with the increasingly congested highway.

If Crystal River's ideal population is 10,000, as Sallee suggests, it has a long way to go. Recently released census figures put the city at 3,485 residents; a University of Florida estimate put the figure at 4,369.

Either way, it is a troubling trend to some, who have watched other areas in the county grow steadily. In 1990, 4,050 people lived in Crystal River, according to figures provided by the city.

While the population may be stagnant, the overall amount of taxable property increased 58 percent in the past decade, to $246-million from $155-million. Officials say a fair amount of the growth occurred in the downtown redevelopment district and the revenue was diverted to the Community Redevelopment Agency.

"Our costs keep rising every year," said council member Mike Gudis. "We have to pay higher salaries. Gasoline keeps going up. I want annexation because it will keep the taxes down."

The carrots the city plans to dangle before its targets are familiar: better and faster police and fire coverage, central sewer service and, by extension, the knowledge that by closing septic systems one is doing his part to protect the region's greatest asset, the waterways.

In return, the city would receive additional tax revenue, an economy of scale and the ability to attract large employers more easily. An expanded population would also put the city in a better position to obtain state and federal grants.

The proposal has some costly downsides, of course. Property owners in areas targeted for annexation would pay both city and county taxes. To be sure, dual taxation is the largest hurdle city officials face.

"They can talk pie in the sky all they want to and say, "This is the solution. We can invite people in to pay our taxes,' " said Ed Tolle, a longtime resident, real estate broker and former City Council member. "It doesn't happen that way."

Salvatore Tine, 80, who lives in the Indian Springs area off U.S. 19, said the additional tax would hurt an already small pension.

Nearby, Sally Durham, 54, grumbled over a faulty septic system and said she would gladly vote to join the city. "I know I'm going to have to pay more taxes, but I want to get on sewer."

Crystal River's ability to annex is limited by an interlocal agreement with the county. Although the state Supreme Court has ruled cities can make annexation a condition of extending water or sewer services to unincorporated areas, the 1997 pact precludes that.

The accord does allow Crystal River to charge out-of-city users 25 percent more on monthly bills than city residents pay. Another incentive for people to join the city, officials say, is they will no longer pay extra.

Sallee said the city intends to renegotiate the interlocal agreement so the annexation clause no longer applies. Another objective is to lower county tax rates for all city residents. Annexation can occur only if the areas contiguous to the city voluntarily petition or if a special vote is called.

Previous attempts have yielded mixed results. In 1993, voters in subdivisions north of Woodland Estates -- Carpenter's Country Square, Country Oaks and Indian Springs -- soundly rejected one such plan, which was the first part of a larger effort to double the size of the city. Observers say the plan was poorly pitched and entangled in politics.

Annexation has taken some strange twists. In 1991, a development company agreed to merge 800 acres west of the city and near the state archaeological site into the city. The apparent motive: to circumvent Citrus County's tough coastal development restrictions and build 500 homes. The deal was approved by the City Council but no homes were ever built. Several years later, the property was purchased for a state reserve.

The state has snatched up valuable land within the city limits as well. Last July, it paid Tolle, the former council member, $1.4-million for 10 acres near the preserve.

And there is an ongoing effort to purchase Three Sisters Springs, nearly pristine 60 acres on Kings Bay that was once targeted for multilevel condominiums.

Environmentalists are riding high, no doubt, but it can be argued the acquisitions have contributed to the city's woes. Dozens of pricey waterfront homes could have been built. Not only would these wealthy homeowners have paid sizable income taxes, they would have spent money in local restaurants and shops, too.

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