Nov 12, 2023

Hillsborough balks at renewed PACE home

A home-energy loan program that has come under scrutiny for saddling people with debt they can't afford might not be able to restart in Hillsborough County, despite a judge's order.

That's because Hillsborough County tax collector Nancy Millan says she lacks legal authority to add the loan payments, or assessments, to property tax bills as the program requires.

In May 25 letters to four providers of Property Assessed Clean Energy, known commonly as PACE, Millan noted 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.

As of 2022, the county had 2,646 accounts with certified PACE assessments, Millan told the Tampa Bay Times.

Her stance, mirrored by tax collectors in Pasco and Sarasota counties, answered concerns voiced by Commissioner Pat Kemp over what she called the fraudulent nature of direct mail advertising to homeowners in Hillsborough.

"Community alert: A $500 million funding program has been implemented in Hillsborough County. This program protects your home from hurricanes, hail and tornadoes. You can get up to $75,000 financing by calling this number," Kemp said, quoting the mail piece during a May 3 commission meeting.

"I was very alarmed since I know that this does not exist," she said, asking the county staff to investigate.

The county's Consumer and Veterans Services Department is investigating the business practices of the company that sent the mailer, according to the county attorney's office.

Despite the ban in Hillsborough and elsewhere, the ability of local governments to regulate the program has come into question because of a recent court decision. In late 2022, a judge in Leon County ruled that the Florida PACE Funding Agency, one of the special districts created to administer the program under state law, can give out loans wherever it wants, regardless of local ordinance.

Pinellas County sued the funding agency in an effort to halt loans in that county. In Pasco, tax collector Mike Fasano sent letters to vendors that said the assessments would be added to tax bills only if the county-required disclosure forms were signed by the property owners.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners voted to investigate joining the Pinellas lawsuit and to study other potential safeguards if the program is resurrected.

Jamy Dinkins, an attorney for the Florida PACE Funding Agency, disputed Milan's position.

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

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let's get started.

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 Tampa Bay 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.

But the commission voted instead to terminate the program after then-commission chairperson 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.

Let's get started.