The Citrus County Property Appraiser's Office had little choice but to end its legal fight with Duke Energy over the appraisal of the utility's Crystal River power plants. An earlier court ruling gutted the county's case and revealed it likely had overvalued the site by nearly $2 billion.
The settlement, announced last week, ends the public's legal expenses and requires Duke to pay $7.5 million in additional property taxes to the county and School Board for 2012 and 2013. (The utility already paid nearly $42 million.) The agreement also sets the value of the property for the 2014 tax year at $1.3 billion, 44 percent higher than the $900 million assessment Duke indicated it would seek because of closing its nuclear plant there.
Regardless of those numbers, this is a clear victory for Duke. Its 2013 appraisal plummeted $1.9 billion and its cumulative two-year tax payment of $49.4 million is 50 percent less than what the county billed it in 2012 and 2013. The public is settling for capping its legal bills at $1.4 million and accepting added tax payments that aren't nearly the windfall for which local officials had hoped. And the Citrus County Commission and Citrus School Board now have more certainty over how much revenue they can expect from the county's largest taxpayer in 2014.
Duke Energy's Crystal River complex, which makes up a quarter of the county's tax rolls, includes four coal-burning units and the shuttered nuclear plant, but most of the dispute centered on the value of two coal units' pollution control systems. Former Property Appraiser Geoffrey Green, citing a 1998 court ruling, put the higher-priced market value on the equipment. But Duke Energy pointed to a 1967 state law allowing a tax break for the pollution controls by listing them at salvageable value. Four months ago, a circuit judge sided with the utility and said Green had no legal standing to question the validity of the 1967 law. It decimated the property appraiser's case and forced current Property Appraiser Les Cook, who assumed office in January after Green's death, to negotiate from a severely weakened position.
Cook, however, made the right decision. Risking added legal expenses with little chance of return would have been imprudent. But the end of the litigation and Duke's substantial windfall is hard to swallow for Citrus County residents. It translates to a higher tax burden for every other property owner in the county.