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Utility giant strikes back at county with lawsuit

Florida Water Services sued Citrus County in federal court Thursday, alleging the county is abusing its regulatory powers to halt the pending sale of the utility giant to a pair of Panhandle towns.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Ocala, alleges the county is "violating Florida Water's federally protected property rights" by trying to interfere in the $507-million utility sale to the towns of Gulf Breeze and Milton.

The utility seeks compensatory and punitive damages. It also is asking the court to bar the county from taking further action against Florida Water.

The case signals Florida Water's first counter strike against a local government that has objected to the pending sale, set to close Dec. 15.

"It is our company, and we're trying to sell it, and Citrus County is trying to interfere," said Florida Water spokeswoman Lisa Lochridge.

The utility serves about 9,000 customers in Sugarmill Woods, Citrus Springs, Pine Ridge and several smaller Citrus communities.

The lawsuit quotes from a letter that County Administrator Richard Wesch sent to Florida Water's parent company, Allete, shortly after the sale was announced Sept. 19.

"You should know we intend to do whatever is legally necessary to stop this proposed transaction," Wesch wrote to Allete chairman David Gartzke.

Last month the County Commission anted up $20,000 to start legal challenges. At the same time, commissioners gave the county's utility regulatory board the power to review utility sales to governmental entities.

The utility board then launched a separate inquiry into Florida Water, asking why the company was not making a list of repairs identified by a consultant who inspected the systems for a separate buyer.

Tuesday, the County Commission voted 3-2 to endorse the plans of that other buyer _ the Florida Governmental Utility Authority _ to purchase Florida Water. Citrus is one of the three counties that belong to the FGUA, a group that negotiated with Florida Water for nearly a year.

Now that Florida Water has a contract to sell to the Panhandle towns _ which created their own utility coalition, the Florida Water Services Authority _ Lochridge said the utility cannot entertain other offers.

Moreover, she said, Florida Water will fight the cities or counties that try to block its sale to the Panhandle group.

"We're going to continue to scrutinize every action by the cities and counties, the law firms and the individuals trying to interfere with our rights," Lochridge said. "And we'll take whatever action we think is necessary."

In a news release, Florida Water also said it is contemplating legal action against other parties, "including elected officials who are intentionally interfering with the company's contractual obligations and attempting to significantly reduce the value of Florida Water's private property."

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhallsptimes.com.

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