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INVERNESS — A circuit court judge Thursday blocked the Citrus County Commission and school board from joining Property Appraiser Geoff Greene in the Progress Energy lawsuit, dealing a potential blow to the county’s hopes to win the case on constitutional grounds.
Judge T. Michael Johnson agreed with attorneys with Progress Energy and the Attorney General’s Office that state law does not allow the county commission and school board to “intervene” in property tax dispute lawsuits.
However, Johnson left the door open for Greene to argue that a law Progress cites to reduce the taxable value of its pollution-control equipment isn’t allowed by the state Constitution.
Johnson said he sees a difference in arguing whether a law is constitutional and whether constitutional language effectively repeals the law.
Even in deciding against the county commission and school board, he encouraged county attorneys to appeal his ruling. Johnson said he thinks the constitutionality of the law should have a fair court hearing.
Progress and its parent company, Duke Energy, sued Greene over the 2012 taxable value of its energy complex north of Crystal River. Progress made what it said was a “good faith” tax payment of $19.3 million — about $15 million less than what county officials said the company owes.
Both the county commission and school board said the company’s decision cost them millions of dollars in revenue that they had anticipated based on the property appraiser’s certified tax roll.
Progress said Greene erred by assessing pollution-control equipment at full value rather than as salvage material, which it said is allowed by state law.
Greene said a 1998 Citrus County circuit court decision ruled the law unconstitutional. The company did not appeal, but since then the Florida Supreme Court has ruled property appraisers may not challenge whether laws are constitutional.
Both the county and school board sought to join the lawsuit so they could make the constitutional challenge. However, Progress attorney Eric Tresh and assistant attorney general Joe Mellichamp, representing the Department of Revenue, said state law does not allow taxing agencies to make those challenges.
Attorney Tracy Marshall, representing Greene, the county commission and school board, argued unsuccessfully that Johnson could allow the two government entities to join the lawsuit in a limited capacity.
Johnson said he believes the constitutional issue should be debated in court, though he reluctantly agreed with the state and Progress Energy.
“I am troubled, very troubled,” he said. “I am troubled by the issue of constitutionality.”
Johnson then encouraged Greene’s attorneys to appeal his ruling.
County Attorney Richard Wesch said later that the decision to appeal rests with both the school board and county commission, and not with Greene. He said he would bring the matter to the commission’s attention once the judge’s ruling is filed with the court.
Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or email@example.com.