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Progress Energy Florida property tax dispute causes financial woes for Citrus County

Citrus County is facing a budget crisis after a utility company refused to pay $16 million in property taxes.

Progress Energy Florida, which serves the county's 140,000 residents, has a property tax bill of $35 million -- a large chunk of the county's total tax revenue. But as of Wednesday, Progress Energy Florida had only paid $19 million.

Progress Energy Florida became a subsidiary of the North Carolina-based Duke Energy in July and claims the county property appraiser has over valued its Crystal River plant, causing a discrepancy with its property taxes.

Because much of the county's revenue comes from Progress Energy Florida's taxes, county services could be affected if the outstanding taxes aren't paid, said Joe Meek, chairman for the Board of County Commission for Citrus County.

"The dollar amounts that we’re talking about are significant by themselves," Meek said. "But in relation to the size of our budget, they’re very large. This is a very unique situation where we have a single taxpayer that controls 26 percent of our tax base."

The money has already been integrated into the county's budget, causing a potential problem for the county's police, fire, EMS, parks, libraries and other county functions, Meek said.

And that doesn't include the $8-million hit the school board could take.

"It’s not as if we’re talking about planning for the future and being able to build our budget around that," he said. "It directly affects our ability to be able to fund the services that we have budgeted for, that we have set our millage rates on."

Every year, there are negotiations on property values, but since Duke Energy and Progress Energy Florida have merged, negotiations have not been as successful, Meek explained.

Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy has started making changes because of the lack of money. Dawsy recently instituted a hiring freeze and stopped ordering equipment.

"From there, a lot has to depend on the negotiations between our county and Duke," he said. "Those are the two players right now."

If Progress Energy Florida doesn't settle the dispute, 30 sheriff’s office employees will be laid off, he said.

"That could account for about 25 to 29 deputy sheriffs," he said. "That’s not where it’s all going to come from. It won’t be just the minimal amount of people. It will go into the communication center. It will go into the detectives. It will go into support staff."

Progress Energy Florida plans to file a complaint in circuit court Friday regarding the property tax dispute, said Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for the company.

The company believes its tax assessment is overstated and wants pay its fair share, which is why it's looking for options to settle the dispute, Grant said.

"We care very deeply about Citrus County and all the communities that we serve," she said. "Our employees live and work in these communities, too....But we really feel that it’s our obligation to ensure for all of our customers that our tax values are appropriate and to take the appropriate measure, and that’s what we’re looking into doing."

Hana Engroff wrote this story online.

Denise is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.