Citrus County, Florida- The battle over property taxes between Citrus County and Progress/Duke Energy appears to be heading to court. The utility company filed a lawsuit in circuit court today to have a judge determine a fair property value.
Progress/Duke Energy is protesting the method used to evaluate nine of its 186 parcels. The properties include the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant that has been out of service since 2009, a pollution control system and two coal-fired units.
The litigation means the county will not receive $15 million in property taxes it had already certified and included in its fiscal budget. Progress/Duke Energy made a good faith payment on Wednesday for $19 million of a $35 million tax bill.
"They say that's what they want to pay," Geoffrey Greene, Citrus County Property Appraiser says during an emergency meeting of the Citrus County Board of County Commissioners on Friday.
Several hundred residents, law enforcement officers and county workers attended enough to fill the commission chamber and jury room.
READ: Progress Energy challenges valuation and tax bill
Commissioners begin the hard job of deciding where to cut its share, totaling more than $5 million money used to pay for jobs, programs and services.
"We're not playing Let's Make a Deal here," says Joe Meek, Commission Chairman.
READ: Statement by Commission Chairman Joe Meek
But that's what County commissioners say Progress/Duke Energy is doing with taxpayer dollars.
"Duke Energy is a bunch of thugs and has placed the county in a hazardous position," says Citrus County Commissioner JJ Kenney.
Greene tells commissioners Progress/Duke officials waited a month after the tax roll was certified to dispute it, and instead of negotiating, Greene says they offered a $27 million and later a $24 million payment to cover a $35 million tax bill.
Commissioner Kenney says, "As far as I'm concerned, Duke Energy is unethical. Shame on them for doing this to this community."
"Progress/Duke Energy is not paying their tax bill and they're doing it in a way to inflict the greatest amount of harm and leverage on our community," says Commissioner Meek.
County Administrator Brad Thorpe has identified more than $5 million in cuts and has divided these cuts in two phases.
Thorpe says the first phase would take place immediately. Phase one consists of freezing vehicle purchases and nine vacant positions, limiting travel and training and reducing road resurfacing funding.
Phase Two, Thorpe says, would come later if the Progress/Duke Energy dispute drags out in court. He says these cuts would impact the residents' quality of life.
Thorpe includes eliminating 31 full time positions, funding cuts to the health department, library, road maintenance, and the closing of 2 community centers that serve mostly senior citizens.
Resident Barbara Harmon says the commission should reconsider closing the community centers.
"I suggest that's a bad move- 42% of our community is over 60. Those community centers are used on a daily basis," says Harmon.
Law enforcement will need to cut $1.8 million, fire rescue about $800,000 and the school district is hit the hardest with $8 million in cuts.
Commissioner Kenney says, "They are coming into our community and bullying us."
County commissioners and school board members will hold a joint meeting on at 10 a.m. on December 10 to discuss cuts and their next legal step.
The County Administrator says at stake is not just the $15 million in dispute, but future taxes from Progress/Duke Energy of up to $338 million over the next 30 years.