Meek: Budget closer to balance

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By Chris Van Ormer

County Commission Chairman Joe Meek was hopeful Wednesday that the county could balance its budget without making cuts amounting to $1.4 million or raising the $1.4 million through a franchise fee.

After a special budget meeting Tuesday, the Citrus County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) was offered the choices of setting a millage rate of 8.1739 mills and still needing a source of $1.4 million or setting the millage at 8.3050 mills, which would balance the budget. The shortage was calculated based on Duke Energy claiming a property valuation of $900 million in 2013. 

In 2012, the utility paid about $19 million of a $35 million tax bill.

Property Appraiser Geoff Greene is named in a lawsuit by Duke Energy regarding the utility’s 2012 taxable value. The $900 million valuation was based on information in a letter from Alex Glenn, president of Duke Energy’s utilities operations in Florida, to Greene, who has assessed the utility for 2013 at $3.47 billion.

The board on Tuesday instructed staff to consider cuts to services rather than impose a franchise fee, which would charge utilities for using the county’s right of way. Commissioners said the charge to utilities would be passed on to customers.

Speaking Wednesday to the Chronicle editorial board, Meek said he had just been in contact with Keith Butler, vice president for tax with Duke Energy, and was optimistic that Duke might claim a higher valuation that would increase its property tax payment.

“There is some variable as to what Duke will pay,” Meek said. “If they pay what they paid last year, or if they pay a little bit more, then that $1.4 million shortfall would be possibly less than that.”

Meek said Duke Energy indicated it would pay $20.5 million in taxes. If so, next year’s county budget could be close to balanced with a millage rate of 8.1739 that could be achieved with a 3-2 commission vote.

“But don’t hold me to that because we’re still calculating those numbers,” Meek said.

Butler, according to Meek, said the utility had made some improvements to facilities.

“So their new good faith payment, what they feel their liability is, is $20.5 million,” Meek said.

Meek said Greene just received a letter from Duke Energy in response to his request to discuss his new appraisal with the utility. 

“It basically said: We are in receipt of it. We’re reviewing it. We see large issues with it. At this time we see no need to sit down and talk with you,” Meek said.

The letter to Greene from David W. Wright, director, property and non-income taxes, Duke Energy, stated: “While we appreciate your offer for an informal meeting, the information regarding the value of Progress Energy Florida’s property is set forth in its 2013 Tangible Personal Property Returns. Therefore, a meeting would be unproductive at this time.”

Regarding the 2013 appraisal report commissioned from Gerald Hartman — an accredited senior appraiser specializing in utilities, that Greene provided — Wright stated: “Based on our preliminary analysis, we have identified what appear to be significant errors in Mr. Hartman’s methodology and conclusions.”

Greene told the Chronicle on Wednesday that the response was disappointing, as he had offered to have an informal conference to resolve their differences about the 2012 and 2013 assessments. 

Greene, however, continues to try to meet with Duke officials.

“Today, I sent congratulations to the new CEO, Ms. (Lynn) Good, and said we should talk,” Greene said. “So I’m still, every day I can, extending the offer of a dialogue to try to resolve these issues.”

Greene said he would like to discuss with Wright the alleged errors in his appraisal report.

“Really, all I’m trying to do is have a conversation,” Greene said.

* One feature of the new budget Meek said he didn’t want to be “bashful” about is that it contains a 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise for county employees.

“The county staff has not had a pay increase for five years,” Meek said. 

The sheriff also budgeted the increase, Meek said. A meeting has been set for Friday with all the constitutional officers. Only Clerk of Court Angela Vick has said she did not want a 3 percent increase, Meek said. But, it would be discussed on Friday.

Countywide, the cost would be $900,000, Meek said.

Contact Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer at 352-564-2916 or cvanormer@chronicleonline.com.