By Lou Newman, CEO and Publisher
Citrus County has a population of approximately 140,000 people and has two cities. Levy County, a neighboring county, has a population of approximately 40,000 people and has seven. What is the cause of this phenomenon? That may not be as important as another one asked later.
In recent years, a couple of areas in the unincorporated parts of Citrus County have organized Municipal Services Benefit Units (MSBU). By definition of Florida Statute, FS 125.01(q), an MSBU is a special assessment area created by the Board of County Commissioners under which a specific area’s residents receives a specialized governmental service by voting for an additional fee to be levied and collected for the purposes for such service.
In the case of Citrus Springs, when Deltona no longer provided community services, the local community leaders of the time asked their residents and the County for help and decided in 1994 that establishing an MSBU was the best option. Currently, Citrus Springs allows the county to collect, hold, and disperse almost $700,000 a year from its property owners on services that range from mowing to road paving, to installing water hydrants and street lights. Currently the focus is on repaving roads and the minimal required mowing of the medians and swales.
When Janet Barek, Secretary of the Citrus Springs Civic Association, was asked what she thought of turning Citrus Springs into a municipality, she shared “I can see Citrus Springs being a city one day but first, and foremost, we have to focus on our roads.” She also added that she knew that some “were researching options on where to get the feasibility study done.”
Incorporating, or becoming a city, is no easy task, as enumerated in FS 165. The first step is to obtain funds for a feasibility study which provides an outline of proposed services, uses, boundaries, a proposed budget, and a proposed charter. Such studies are normally conducted by public administration or governmental affair consulting firms and on average cost about $40,000. A special act of legislation is required, as is the support of both local state senator and state representative. A vote on both the issue of corporation and the charter both must take place by those domiciled in the area. And, then if that all takes place and the citizens are willing to pay extra property taxes, then a municipality may be formed.
In the case of Beverly Hills, when the head of its Civic Association, Harvey Gerber, was asked about whether Beverly Hills should become a city or not, he quickly responded, “yes, of course, it should have become a city 30 years ago.” But when he was asked why he thought it never materialized he took a little more time to answer but answered “people don’t want to pay the extra taxes.” He shared that he believed that the residents from Forest Ridge communities were not interested in higher taxes or forming a city – that they were satisfied with the services already received, including law enforcement. But, he did indicate that the focus should be on the original sections of Beverly hills due to its population density, and the issues of code enforcement and beautification that came with such a population center.
Higher taxes may be the main reason why the residents of Citrus Springs and Beverly Hills never incorporated. But, they are already collecting extra fees through MSBUs in these areas. In fact, Citrus Springs, is already collecting an extra $700,000 in MSBU fees every year from their community. What community leaders of these areas (and other areas) should realize is that incorporation not only brings slightly higher taxes, it’s capable of bringing economic development, grant funding, shared state and utility revenue, attract developers and investors to their areas, create local jobs, enhance code enforcement and provide additional training and enrichment opportunities for their residents.
After all, the road resurfacing, neighborhood beautification and stabilization, and enhanced code enforcement goals that these areas desire may never be achieved by relying on County government.
Why are there only two cities in Citrus County? That can be debated and may not be of the utmost importance. The truly important question is will these areas continue to complain about inadequate services provided by Citrus County government, or will they start to complain about slightly higher property taxes but suddenly have many more miles of roads paved and find it easy to pass a new grass height ordinance? Citrus Springs, Beverly Hills, Citrus County awaits your answers.