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PACE sues to restart Hillsborough County loans

The home-energy agency argues the tax collector has a legal duty to collect its assessments.
 
Solar panels on Ruskin homes purchased with PACE loans.
Solar panels on Ruskin homes purchased with PACE loans. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2019) ]
Published Aug. 23, 2023|Updated Aug. 23, 2023

A home-energy loan program scrutinized for saddling people with unanticipated debt is asking a circuit judge to let it do business again in Hillsborough County.

If a court agrees, the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, known commonly as PACE, could restart activities the Hillsborough County Commission banned in 2020.

The legal challenge in Hillsborough from the Florida PACE Funding Agency, one of the special districts created to administer the program under state law, coincides with the PACE agency’s successful court fight in Sarasota County.

Last week, 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Stephen Walker ruled Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates had no legal authority to refuse to collect the PACE assessments attached to homeowners’ property tax bills.

In a May 25 letter to PACE providers, Hillsborough Tax Collector Nancy Millan similarly said she had no legal authority to collect the loan payments — appearing as assessments on tax bills — because the Hillsborough County Commission ended the local agreements between the county and the agencies in late 2020.

Without those local agreements, “I have no authority under Florida law to collect future assessments,” Millan wrote. She said she would continue to administer the assessments on properties that began before December 2020.

The Florida PACE Funding Agency said Millan’s position is illegal.

“The law does not allow a tax collector to decide whether an agreement between a taxing authority and a board of county commissioners is required. Every court in the state to address this issue has decided against tax collectors who took the position that they could require such conditions,” PACE attorney Jamy Dinkins said in a prior email to the Tampa Bay Times. “We have heard no reason why a court would act differently in Hillsborough County, if asked.”

Ask they did. In a July 14 filing, Dinkins argued Millan “does not have discretion or authority to determine the validity of such assessments” and asked a judge to order her to perform her duty to collect the PACE charges. Without the assessment income, the funding agency risked defaulting on bonds issued to finance the home repairs, according to the request for an emergency court order.

Millan’s spokesperson said legal counsel advised her not to comment on pending litigation. Last week, the Hillsborough County Commission authorized the county attorney to represent the tax collector’s office and to intervene in the case “asserting that the levy of PACE assessments by Florida PACE Funding Agency is unlawful without (County Commission) authorization or approval.”

Despite the ban in Hillsborough, the ability of local governments to regulate the program has come into question because of a 2022 legal ruling in Leon County that said the Florida PACE Funding Agency can give out loans wherever it wants, regardless of local ordinance.

The PACE program allows homeowners to finance energy-efficient or storm-hardening features — from heat-and-air systems and solar panels to hurricane windows — with no credit check or money down. Homeowners pay them off through assessments added to annual property tax bills.

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A Times investigation published in September 2020 found the private companies that administer the programs sometimes saddled low-income residents with repayment terms they didn’t understand or could not afford.

In Hillsborough, county staff members proposed in 2020 adding a number of safeguards, including required disclosure statements to customers, county-performed audits and tougher sanctions against vendors. Instead, the commission voted to terminate the program.

As of 2022, there were 2,646 accounts with certified PACE assessments in Hillsborough County.