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30 Florida counties sue, saying consumers at risk in expansion of a home loan program

An aerial view of damaged homes.
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
An aerial view of hurricane damage on the southern tip of St. James City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm Wednesday afternoon, leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.

As Florida’s insurance crisis makes hurricane hardening more important than ever, consumer advocates have pressed to reign in a popular — but controversial — loan program that allows homeowners to pay for new roofs or impact windows through their property tax bills.

Some counties and tax collectors across the state have pushed for clearer disclosures for a program that has generated hundreds of complaints from people who say they were misled on costs or didn’t understand that the loan amounts to a long-term tax lien on their home.

Now, one agency that bankrolls PACE construction projects is pushing back — arguing that individual counties have no legal right to force it to follow additional rules or even decide where it can operate.

The fight has led to a high-stakes lawsuit that includes nearly half the counties in the state, several of which have blasted the continued operations of a single quasi-governmental agency in Northeast Florida as “an immediate danger to the health, safety or welfare” of residents. Tax collectors from Alachua County to Palm Beach have complained in emails and court records that the Florida PACE Funding Agency’s statewide expansion is “running roughshod” over local government rights. For now, Broward and Miami-Dade, are staying out of it, but the outcome has big implication for two counties that lead the state in PACE contracts.

The case in Tallahassee shapes up as a major legal test for the few but hard-won consumer protections already in place across the state, including new ones in Miami-Dade County, and, perhaps, the future of Florida’s PACE program. That stands for property assessed clean energy, a nod to what has been touted as “green” program.

And it could also impact nearly 13,000 property owners across Florida who’ve recently signed agreements with Florida PACE Funding Agency for more than $500 million in home improvement projects — with no guarantee that the tax-lien arrangement they agreed to will stick. Potentially, they could be hit with big bills from contractors or lenders instead.

The Florida PACE Funding Agency, meanwhile, has launched its own public relations offensive, taken multiple tax collectors to court and vowed to take the case to Florida’s Supreme Court if the judge doesn’t rule its way.

READ MORE: Other states have fixed consumer protection problems with PACE loans. Why not Florida?

Mike Moran, executive director of Florida PACE, strongly defends his agency’s actions as well as the PACE industry itself. He argues his quasi-governmental agency has its own authority to levy property taxes. He paints the agency’s statewide expansion as a plus for the state and consumers, an opportunity for people who might not otherwise qualify for conventional loans to make crucial home repairs at a cheaper price (usually 9 to 11% interest) than a credit card.

“I can’t finance because you don’t like your kitchen counter top. It has to be a public purpose, home hardening and energy efficiency,” he said. “If you take this option away, they’re just going to put it on a 29% credit card.”


Up until last year, the PACE program worked like this: groups like the Florida PACE Agency, which serve as middlemen between homeowners and loan companies like FortiFi and Home Run Financing, needed a county’s permission to work within its boundaries.

Unlike a traditional bank loan, which is based on credit and financial records, PACE agreements are based on home equity. In exchange for the cash to complete a construction project, PACE providers put a lien on the property and collect annual payments through the property tax bill, which is gathered by a county property tax collector.

The bump to the tax bill can be steep, in some cases a 200% to 300% rise, and unlike a loan from a bank, failing to pay a tax bill can lead to foreclosure.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade approves consumer protections for controversial home improvement program

As the program grew in popularity across Florida in the last decade, tax collectors started hearing complaints from residents who didn’t understand why their tax bills had risen so steeply, or believed they had been signed up for the program under false pretenses by contractors.

In response, several counties passed new consumer protections like limiting loans to the lifespan of the product, requiring recorded phone calls and more thorough disclosure forms. Others did nothing, leaving a patchwork of protections across the state.

Then, starting in January, the Florida PACE Funding Agency abruptly announced that it no longer had to follow any of those rules, thanks to a Leon County judge’s ruling.


It was supposed to be a routine hearing, the same kind PACE agencies across Florida regularly attend to ensure they’re checking the right financial boxes. But instead of just asking the judge if his bond documents were in order, Moran asked the judge to rule on whether Florida PACE needed permission from a local government to operate within its borders.

In his ruling, the judge said no, they didn’t need permission.

Moran said that gives Florida PACE Funding Agency the right to operate in any county in Florida, including those that have explicitly banned the program. He also insists and his agency already has robust consumer protection rules.

“We do all of those consumer protections. There’s not a single one that someone asked us to do that we aren’t doing,” he told the Miami Herald. In court records, however, Alachua County said Moran “vehemently” fought a new consumer protection it tried to enact in 2022, and Leon County said Moran negotiated with the county to tweak some of its proposed protections the same year.


Tax collectors across the state have fought Moran’s moves. They sent cease and desist letters, passed county commission resolutions and called in county attorneys and legislators. At least 30 tax collectors have joined a lawsuit against Florida PACE over the issue.

“What a judge did in Tallahassee should never have happened in a bond-type hearing,” said Mike Fasano, Pasco County’s tax collector and a longtime vocal critic of PACE. “That’s not what the Legislature had any intent of happening. There was always supposed to be this interlocal agreement.”

As the fight spread to new counties, Florida PACE continued to sign up thousands of homeowners in counties across the state without their permission, including Alachua, Hillsborough and Palm Beach.

In response, some tax collectors said they weren’t going to collect the PACE assessments tacked on to their residents’ tax bills.

“I believe the responsibility tax collectors have is we’re only going to collect what is proper and authorized on the tax rolls. As it stands right now, these assessments are not proper or authorized, so they’re not getting collected,” Rob Stoneburner, Collier County’s tax collector, told the Herald.

That left Florida PACE scrambling to recoup its investments and quell questions from its investors. In an October press release, Moran said bondholders and private investors withdrew funding from Florida.

“The consequences of this withdrawal are far-reaching, impacting tens of millions of dollars that were to be used to pay contractors who have recently completed or are currently working on renovation projects. Furthermore, many ongoing projects face uncertainty, potentially leaving homeowners in a precarious financial situation,” he wrote.

At that, Moran sued.

He took multiple tax collectors to court to force them to collect the assessments he insists are legally valid, based on the Leon County ruling. So far, judges have agreed with his argument in some counties, including Hernando and Sarasota, where he chairs the county commission and is running for tax collector, and disagreed in others, including Alachua, Bradford and Hillsborough.

“We don’t do ‘mother may I’ to another governmental authority to tell them to put it on the tax bill, we are the governmental authority,” Moran said. “There are a billion dollars of bondholders on the street in Florida that need to be paid back, and property tax collectors need to put this on the tax bill. That is not a complicated discussion.”


Experts say this PACE drama will end in two ways. Either a judge rules that Moran is right or wrong, or the Florida Legislature tweaks the rules of PACE to resolve the dispute.

Stoneburner, the tax collector from Collier, said tax collectors across the state need “a clear answer” on whether or not Florida PACE needs permission from a county to operate there.

“Either they’re right or they’re not right. If they’re right, OK, in my mind it’s going to be the Wild West because then all the other PACE providers will do the same type of thing, they’re going to operate however they want,” he said.

READ MORE: ‘People got screwed.’ Despite troubles, green energy lender seeks restart in Florida

But Moran said that even if the Legislature moves to fix the issue in the upcoming session — or get rid of PACE entirely — he still wants the courts to weigh in.

“If that curtain went down and PACE is gone, you still have that billion dollars of bondholders that need to get paid back,” he said.

That decision could come as soon as February, when the same Leon County judge whose ruling set off the crisis has agreed to revisit the discussion, after a legal push from at least 30 tax collectors across the state.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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