Hillsborough to let controversial PACE program expire as planned

Commissioner Stacy White retreats from a plan to extend the home-energy financing program.
LUIS SANTANA   |   Times
Aerial view of homes with solar panels purchased as part of the PACE loan program pictured in 2019 in Ruskin.
LUIS SANTANA | Times Aerial view of homes with solar panels purchased as part of the PACE loan program pictured in 2019 in Ruskin. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 2, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White’s proposed lifeline to a controversial home-energy financing program turned out to be shorter than expected.

White indicated last week he wanted to save the local version of the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, known as PACE. White proposed to grant it another 90 days to do business in the county while the commission met in a workshop to try to devise consumer safeguards.

His plan came nearly three months after commissioners voted to terminate the program because of homeowner complaints about unethical behavior from private-sector participants. The vote in August started a required 90-day notice to private vendors that the county would cease the program on Dec. 6.

The state-sanctioned PACE program is intended to help homeowners afford energy-efficient upgrades, such as new air conditioners and rooftop solar panels. But a Tampa Bay Times investigation published in September found the private companies that administer the programs saddled low-income residents with risky loans tied to their property tax bills.

Related: Tampa Bay Times investigation: Energy efficiency finance program traps homeowners in debt.

White said he proposed the resuscitation because “although we’ve heard some, frankly, absolute horror stories about the PACE program, there are still many out there that feel the program could have merit.”

But he announced he had changed his mind.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“Over the past 24 hours, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just not ready for prime time,’' White told the rest of the commission Wednesday afternoon.

He said he would not seek a program extension nor ask for a workshop. Instead, the board agreed to let County Administrator Bonnie Wise and her staff, in the words of White, “just engage in a conversation with the stakeholders to see if there is some way to renew or bring back to the board a plan that would perhaps re-implement the PACE program with stringent consumer protections.”

After White’s statement, Commissioners Kimberly Overman, Mariella Smith and Chairwoman Pat Kemp all voiced concerns about the PACE program.

In August, county staff members proposed a number of safeguards including required disclosure statements to customers, county performed audits and tougher sanctions against vendors.

Related: Hillsborough cuts ties to PACE program

But the commission never considered the ideas, voting instead to terminate the program after then- Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. read an email from a constituent detailing her disabled sister’s run-in with PACE. The woman signed a contract for a new air conditioner and the work, done without a permit, resulted in a $16,500 bill for the air conditioner plus $13,000 in interest over the next 15 years.

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Hillsborough joined the program in 2017. By August 2020, there were four home-improvement financing agencies and their third-party administrators operating in the county.

Florida PACE Funding Agency and its administrator, Counterpointe Energy Solutions, had been kicked out of the program in Pasco County two years ago, but were the only one of the four not facing a complaint in Hillsborough.

The other vendors and administrators, Florida Green Finance Authority, Renew Financial; Florida Resiliency and Energy District, Renovate America; and Green Corridor Property Assessment Clean Energy, Ygrene had been the subject of 16 complaints. Fourteen of the cases had been resolved or forwarded to the Florida Attorney General’s Office and $63,471 had been recovered for customers.

Before White announced his about-face, Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, had encouraged the commission to continue the program with new safeguards.

“I’m asking you, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,’' Glickman said.

But even White expressed reservations.

“It was not a foregone conclusion that I would have supported a permanent reinstatement or renewal of the PACE program,” he told the rest of the board.