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Surprise recusal deepens tax suit intrigue

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Patricia Thomas will not hear Progress case

By Pat Faherty

A new judge will handle the lawsuit filed by Progress Energy Florida against Citrus County Property Appraiser Geoff Greene and Tax Collector Janice Warren.

The lawsuit filed in late November is contesting ad valorem tax assessments made by Greene for the tax year 2012 and requesting a refund of ad valorem taxes paid under protest to Warren in excess of amounts lawfully due.

The lawsuit also names Marshall C. Stranburg, interim executive director of the Florida Department of Revenue, as a defendant. The Citrus County Board of County Commissioners and the school board have joined the lawsuit as interveners.

In November, Progress made a “good faith” payment of about $19 million for its 2012 property taxes. But county officials say the actual tax bill is closer to $36.5 million.

The case had been assigned to Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Patricia V. Thomas, who serves as administrative judge for Citrus County. However, on Dec. 17, Thomas signed an order of “recusal and re-assignment.”

It requested “the undersigned” (Thomas) “should disqualify herself from this case” and the court found it necessary to request Daniel B. Merritt Sr., as Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial District, reassign the case to another judge.

Progress Energy Florida is seeking to have a judge declare the company’s pollution-control equipment “salvage,” which would render its taxable value practically nil. The company is relying on a state law that exempts pollution-control equipment from property taxes. However, Judge Thomas found that same law unconstitutional in a 1998 case involving then-Property Appraiser Ron Schultz and Florida Power Corp., Progress’ predecessor.“

Our 1998 property tax settlement with the county also held open our ability to challenge the issue going forward,” Progress spokesperson Suzanne Grant said. “In addition, we have been in discussions with the property appraiser for more than two years regarding this issue.

Last week, attorneys filed a response to the lawsuit — an affirmative defense — for Warren and Stranburg. And on Thursday, a response was filed on behalf of Greene.

“I remain hopeful that there may yet be resolution to this dispute,” Greene said in a press release. “I expect after this response, both sides will have a better understanding of positions to facilitate future discussions between parties.”

Greene said he could not discuss the substance of the case, but would keep the public apprised of any new developments.

Contact Chronicle reporter Pat Faherty at 352-564-2924 or pfaherty@chronicleonline.com.