Inverness, FL- A battle between Progress/Duke Energy and Citrus County over unpaid property taxes heats up.
The utility company paid a little over $19 million of a $35 million tax bill, and is disputing the balance saying the property appraiser over assessed the company's property value.
"The number one thing government does is protect the safety of its citizens."
It's a job Citrus County Sheriff Jeffrey Dawsey says has been crippled by the Progress/Duke Energy Company for not paying $15 million in property taxes. Dawsey says it's money that could cost lives.
"If I have cars that are not safe, vests that are outdated, weapons that need to be replaced- the responsibility falls upon Duke for their failure to meet their responsibility to taxpayers that they have pledged," says Dawsey.
Sheriff Dawsey has stopped all purchases and ordered a hiring freeze. He says lay-offs are likely of as many as 30 deputies, fire rescue and Emergency Management personnel. The sheriff says he has reduced training for deputies and firefighters.
Today the sheriff put the communities of Sugarmill Woods, Darosa and Floral City on alert. Dawsey says due to the unexpected budget cuts brought on by Progress/Duke, the county may have to close two fire departments, meaning 12 firefighters would lose their jobs and residents would lose service.
READ: Progress Energy challenges valuation and tax bill
The sheriff believes Progress/Duke Energy intentionally waited until all government budgets had been approved and allocated before refusing to pay the entire tax bill.
"Do the right thing and pay your taxes," says Dawsey.
The $15 million in unpaid property taxes breaks down like this:
- $1.8 million from law enforcement
- $800,000 from fire rescue
- $4.4 million from other county services and programs
- $8 million from schools
"The $8 million dollars represent jobs," says Terry Flaherty, a physical education coach at Inverness Primary school.
Flaherty says these cuts are devastating and Progress/Duke's actions are deliberate.
"By not paying taxes, Duke is cheating schools cheating the community all for the profit margins," says Flaherty.
"We can't choose not to pay our electric bill. If we do they come and turn it off," says Brett Eldridge, father of two.
Elridge says he worries how the cuts will impact the education his daughter, Brileyann, will receive.
"It could mean massive cutbacks to learning materials, computer equipment and fewer field trips."
Duke Energy and Progress Energy merged in July, and Flaherty has strong feelings about their presence.
"Thanks a lot Duke; it means a lot that you come into our county and pull the rug from under public education. You should come help be part of our community, but you've alienated every body"
Sheriff Dawsey says today he put FEMA and Progress/Duke Energy on notice that due to these unexpected budget cuts, the sheriff's office will no longer guarantee mutual aid to the residents around Crystal River Nuclear Plant.
Progress/Duke Representatives and Emergency Management officials met today to discuss this latest change. No update yet on what has been decided.
Progress/Duke Energy officials say they will be filing a complaint in circuit court on Friday to have a judge determine a fair property assessment.
READ: Statement by Commission Chairman Joe Meek
Meanwhile, Citrus County Board of Commissioners will hold an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. Friday morning, and the School Board will hold its own emergency meeting Friday afternoon at 2 p.m.