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Citrus County and Schools join legal fight against Progress Energy

9:07 PM, Dec 10, 2012   |    comments
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A special Citrus County Commission meeting was called Monday so elected officials could talk about what they should do next in the legal fight against Progress Energy.
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Crystal River, Florida -- It's a power struggle with millions of dollars at stake.

Progress Energy Florida, which recently merged with Duke Energy, is disputing its tax bill in Citrus County. The power company disagrees with the way its power plants there were valued by the property appraiser, so it paid only 19 million of its $35 million bill and then filed a lawsuit against the county property appraiser and tax collector.

The power company's surprise move has left the county and school district in a budget crisis, as each entity struggles to deal with a sudden multi-million dollar funding gap.

"Unfortunately, our largest taxpayer has decided to act in a manner that will cause great harm to this county," said County Commission Chairman Joe Meek at a joint meeting Monday with the school board.

The special meeting was called so the elected officials could talk about what they should do next. Should they somehow negotiate a deal with Progress or fight back in court?

County Administrator Brad Thorpe cautioned that there would be a long-term impact to any decision. "So it's not just this year. You can settle this year, but...their intention is to reduce their tax liability to Citrus County."

In a written statement, Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy, says that county officials should not be surprised by the company's action. 

"Progress Energy Florida has been working with the Citrus County Property Appraiser to determine a fair tax value for the Crystal River Energy Complex and other company-owned property in the county for more than two years. In fact, we notified the county appraiser in May 2012 -- seven months ago -- of the disputed valuation at the Crystal River Energy Complex specifically for the 2012 tax year."

Still the dispute is charging up residents. One woman coming to the microphone to speak has a new name for the merged company. "Progress and Duke -- starts with puke," she said eliciting laughs.

While elected officials are concerned about the costs of a lengthy legal battle, they still voted unanimously to go to court. 

"I believe we need to join in this lawsuit," said school board member Thomas Kennedy.  

Each board agreed to pay $175,000 to fund the first phase of the legal fight.

Despite the size of this powerful power company, Commissioner Dennis Damato says this is no time for little Citrus to roll over. 

"We must go ahead and hold our ground and stand our position," he said after the meeting.

The next step in this process is for the attorney hired by the county, Tom Cloud, to file a response in court. That has to happen by Dec. 20, but after that don't expect any quick action. Some say this legal power battle could go on for years.

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