Thursday, February 22, 2018
Business

Citrus County reels from Duke Energy's refusal to pay full tax bill

The financial fallout from Citrus County's dispute with Duke Energy over its property tax bill has already begun.

County Administrator Brad Thorpe proposed Friday that the county close community centers, libraries and the historic courthouse to meet the county's budget shortfall. He also recommended that the county immediately freeze vehicle purchases and nine vacant positions, limit travel and training, and reduce road-resurfacing funding.

The budget-cutting proposals are the county's response to what the commission referred to as "Duke Energy's choice to make a token payment on their tax assessment," Lindsay Ubinas, a county spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Citrus County commissioners plan to review Thorpe's proposal further at their meeting Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Duke Energy, the parent company of Progress Energy Florida, handed the county a $19 million payment on a $35 million tax bill. Duke said the county property appraiser overvalued the utility's assets, in particular the five electricity generators at the Crystal River power complex.

The $16 million difference equates to a 3 percent loss to the county's coffers and a 3.4 percent cut to Citrus County schools.

As expected, Duke filed a lawsuit against the Citrus property appraiser Friday in Circuit Court to support its contention that its property tax bill was too high.

In its suit, Duke argues that Citrus Property Appraiser Geoffrey Greene did not take into account that the nuclear plant at the Crystal River complex is broken and has been out of service for three years. In addition, two coal-fired units at the complex have lost their usefulness because they no longer meet emissions standards. And the pollution-control systems at the complex have been overvalued.

"As a result, defendant Green has made an illegal and excessive valuation of Plaintiffs' property," Duke stated in its lawsuit.

Duke asked the court to correct the taxable value of the utility's Citrus property and order the county to refund any overpayments.

Greene told the Tampa Bay Times that he received a copy of the lawsuit late Friday and was reviewing it. He has said that his office's assessment of Duke's property was legally sound and backed by a 1998 court ruling. He maintains that Duke had the opportunity to contest the appraisal, but didn't do it before the county certified the tax rolls Oct. 2.

A Duke official visited Greene's office Oct. 30 and said the utility was willing to pay $27 million on the $35 million tax bill, but the property appraiser said he could not legally justify such a reduction. Duke responded with the even smaller payment of $19 million.

Commissioners and the School Board plan to hold a joint meeting Dec. 10 to formulate a legal strategy against the utility.

Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.

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