Collier commissioners delay decision on new consumer protections for PACE
Marceau Berteau talks about the solar panels he had installed and financed through a PACE program in Collier County. He said he was misled about the financing and can't afford it. Laura Layden, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-263-4818
Collier County commissioners have once again put off a decision on a proposed consumer protection ordinance for a controversial financing program that helps property owners pay for energy efficiency and storm-hardening upgrades.
After hours of questions and deliberations, commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to continue the discussion at their next board meeting June 25.
The ordinance would put new rules into place for the financing program known as PACE (Property Assessment Clean Energy).
Two weeks ago, the commissioners voted 3-2 to immediately end the program, but left the door open to revive it under new rules to address reports of unscrupulous contractors deceiving homeowners about how the financing works.
In case you missed it: Collier pulls the plug on PACE financing program, at least for now
The PACE program allows property owners to finance eligible projects and then pay the costs back over time through a voluntary assessment on their tax bills. A property assessment automatically becomes a first lien on any property — putting both the borrowers and mortgage lenders at risk.
For months commissioners have debated adopting new rules for PACE since Commissioner Penny Taylor first proposed a consumer protection ordinance in March. Taylor has been one of the biggest critics of the program, saying contractors have unfairly targeted seniors and minorities, signing them up for loans they didn't need and couldn't afford.
Commissioners reviewed the latest ordinance proposed by county staff virtually line by line, asking pointed questions and suggesting many edits along the way. At times, they grappled to come up with revisions that at least a majority of them could agree upon.
Some of the biggest proposed changes were shot down by a majority of the commissioners. That included making solar improvements ineligible for financing under the program — and requiring the county to police the program through a new disclosure agreement.
The latest ordinance was modeled in part after protections adopted by Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, but some Collier commissioners felt the requirements went too far.
Despite some reservations, a majority of commissioners seemed to agree that residential property owners should be required to sign off on a new disclosure document that includes detailed information designed to help them better understand exactly what they're getting into with PACE.
Staff proposed rules that would require the disclosure document to be notarized and filed with the county for review and approval before any homeowner could enter into a PACE financing agreement.
At least three commissioners, Andy Solis, Bill McDaniel and Burt Saunders, however, said they didn't think the county should be required to review the document, or to approve it in any way. Those kinds of requirements, Solis said, could put the county on a road to disaster, forcing it to take on some of the liability and responsibility for making sure that homeowners have read their financing documents.
"I'm seriously opposed to the county being the clearinghouse for any of it," he said.
Commissioner Taylor argued the county is already liable because "we agreed to have this program operate in Collier County."
"That is a liability," she said.
Commissioners also seemed to agree that penalties for violations of the new ordinance should be higher than the $500 staff proposed.
The notes county staff took for the suggested changes ran more than two pages long. Based on those suggestions, a new version of the ordinance will be crafted to try to address the many concerns raised by commissioners.
At one point, commissioners discussed whether the county's Productivity Committee should look at the issue and come up with recommendations, but some felt it wasn't a job for the voluntary committee, whose mission is to make the county "the best custodians of public funds possible," according to the county's website.
The latest ordinance was a third rendition, with the first one proposed by Commissioner Taylor in March. She wants to make the financing providers more accountable for the actions of unscrupulous contractors, but her first attempt at an ordinance was criticized for going too far in some cases, while not going far enough in others.
In case you missed it: Collier woman says PACE home project contractors misled seniors, non-English speakers
Commissioner Donna Fiala, who moved to end the PACE program at the last meeting, saying it needed to be stopped before it could be fixed, continued to question why the county should be involved in the program at all.
Her concerns were heightened when she heard that one homeowner with a PACE assessment couldn't pay his taxes this year, leading to the sale of a tax certificate to investors who will charge him interest for putting up the money. If the investors don't get repaid within a few years, the home could be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
"I don't think government should be in this business," Fiala said.
To her, she said, it just doesn't seem to make sense.
"We are supporting a for-profit business. We are collecting their fees for them."