The Live Mermaids of Unincorporated Hernando County? It just doesn’t seem to ring like the City of Live Mermaids.
Actually, Weeki Wachee was never a city by any standard definition. With just 13 residents and always dependent on the county for services, the mile-square town was incorporated five decades ago to ensure the name made it onto maps and street signs to help draw visitors to the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction. The most recent mayor of Weeki Wachee used to be a mermaid at the park, now owned by the state.
The bill passed recently by the Florida Legislature to dissolve the city, which Hernando County commissioners didn’t oppose, became official June 9 when it was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who represents the district, introduced the bill, a response to the city being underwater financially and unable to offer any substantial services to its residents.
It was a sad day for Weeki Wachee’s former city attorney, Joe Mason. He’d been providing legal services to city off and on since the 1980s.
“It’s (Weeki Wachee the city) part of the fabric of our community and it was a shame to see it dissolved, but I guess time goes on,” he said.
Mason called the little city founded around one of the state’s most famous springs a piece of “Floridacana.” The attraction, opened by a former Navy diver, is known worldwide for the deep, clear spring and the mermaids who perform in an underwater theater breathing through air hoses. Mason stepped up to help the city with legal battles because he had a soft spot for the historical significance of the attraction and natural spring. He’s owned about $1 million in uncollected legal fees the city racked up over the years. One of his victories was the successful defense of the city from the Southwest Water Management District, which Mason said wanted to close the attraction and take over the land.
Jeff Rogers, Hernando County administrator, said as a practical matter, the dissolution of Weeki Wachee won’t mean anything much changes.
“Weeki Wachee will remain the City of Mermaids, just without the local government organization,” Rogers said.
He also noted that the state park and attraction will continue to operate, though it currently is closed due to COVID-19 concerns.
Rogers also stated that under Florida statutes, Hernando is responsible for any liabilities and debts the former city has.
According to Rogers, Mason’s legal bills, providing they pass county review, will be paid.
Mason said he’s heard nothing from the county yet on the outstanding legal bills, but said statute requires the absorbing county to shoulder them.
“Am I expecting a million-dollar check in the mailbox tomorrow?” asked Mason. “No, but it would be welcome if it is.”
Mason said another reason he worked without pay all those years was to protect the water quality of the spring. The county is currently trying to meet state directives to mitigate pollution of the aquifer, which is believed to be causing reduced water quality in the spring due to an influx of nutrients from fertilizer.
The phosphates and nitrogen are the cause of excess algae growth in the spring, said Mason, who years ago tried to help Weeki Wachee buy the waterworks in Spring Hill to help control the amount of irrigation and resulting washing of fertilizer into groundwater to protect the spring.
Ironically, some of the legal bills the county appears to now owe him were related to his defense of the city when the county attempted to block the sale to Weeki Wachee. Eventually, the county bought the Spring Hill water plant, promising to deal with the problem of excess irrigation and fertilizer pollution, Mason said. Enough wasn’t done, so the county is now dealing with state mandates to do something, he said.
“I won’t say it would have prevented all pollution,” said Mason of regulating irrigation in Spring Hill years ago, as pollution from other parts of the county, and even state, can make their way to the spring. “But it would have gone a long way to prevent it and it would be nowhere near as severe as it is.”