A home-energy loan program scrutinized for saddling people with unanticipated debt won’t be restarting its business in Hillsborough County, a circuit court judge ruled this week.
The Hillsborough County Commission banned the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, known commonly as PACE, from operating locally in 2020 amid complaints that it took advantage of elderly and low-income residents.
The Florida PACE Funding Agency, one of the special districts created to administer the program under state law, sought to restart the program in Hillsborough and elsewhere earlier this year. But, in a May 25 letter to PACE providers, Hillsborough Tax Collector Nancy Millan 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.
The funding agency filed suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court in July contending Millan’s position was illegal. It sought an emergency court order to compel Millan to collect the assessments, saying, without the payments, it risked defaulting on bonds issued to finance the home repairs.
Circuit Judge Robert Bauman, however, refused.
Florida PACE “can point to no authority that clearly establishes the right it advances; namely that Florida PACE is a governmental body authorized by law to impose non-ad valorem assessments independently across the state of Florida, and without the need to operate under cooperative, interlocal agreements with participating local governments respectively served by local tax collectors,” Bauman wrote in an eight-page ruling issued Monday.
Without the ability to collect the assessments, the funding agency can’t operate in Hillsborough.
“This is a significant victory, not only for Hillsborough County but also for the citizens we serve and tax collectors throughout the state,” Millan said in a statement.
Jamy Dinkins, an attorney for Florida PACE Funding, was not immediately available for comment.
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a high profile critic of the PACE program, agreed with Millan.
“This is great news for the consumer,” said Fasano.
The ability of Hillsborough and other 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.
More legal fighting likely lies ahead. Bauman’s order contradicts an August ruling from 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Stephen Walker, who said Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates had no legal authority to refuse to collect the PACE assessments attached to homeowners’ property tax bills.
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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.
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.