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A controversial financing program designed to help residents pay for upgrades that make their homes safer and more energy efficient may hang in the balance once again in Collier County.

Collier commissioners on Tuesday voted 4-1 to discuss the program, known as PACE (Property Assessment Clean Energy) for residents in the unincorporated area, at the board’s next meeting on May 28, including potentially terminating the residential side of the program. 

Commission Chairman Bill McDaniel cast the lone dissenting vote.

The move came after residents brought a series of allegations against the program and some of its providers and contractors during a discussion about an ordinance proposed by county staff to add more consumer protections to PACE.

The program allows property owners to finance eligible projects and then pay the costs back over time through a voluntary assessment on their tax bill. A property assessment automatically becomes a first lien on any property — putting both the borrowers and mortgage lenders at risk.

Commissioner Burt Saunders, who previously voted in favor of eliminating the residential program before having a change of heart two weeks later, said he wanted to hear explanations from providers in response to a long list of allegations made by North Naples resident Elena Mola, an energy executive and attorney.

“I will vote to terminate the program if I don’t get a satisfactory answer,” Saunders said.

Saunders said he did not realize before Tuesday’s discussion “that we had this level of problems.” He said it would be up to the providers to give some explanation to the comments made by Mola and others.

“Because right now all I know is that we got a plethora of people that are indicating some very troubling, predatory practices,” he said.

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After a comprehensive review of hundreds of PACE financing agreements recorded in Collier County, Mola, a concerned North Naples resident, made some troubling findings, which she shared in detail with county commissioners.

One of Mola’s discoveries? That a majority of the homeowners with PACE loans in the county live in the poorer areas of Golden Gate, Golden Gate Estates and Immokalee and include seniors, widows, widowers and disabled veterans, she said.

In one case, Mola found that a senior and disabled veteran saw his property taxes soar by more than $3,960 a year, from a little over $210 to $4,177.

Most of the contractors doing the PACE work are from out of town, she said, coming from such areas as Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, and several have bad reputations.

She found that nearly 200 PACE projects in Collier were marketed by  a contractor who is no longer allowed to offer the financing in Pasco County after the tax collector there determined the contractor had sent out misleading mailers about PACE.

Mola revealed that Bruno Total Home, a troubled company headquartered in Bonita Springs, has done about 400 PACE jobs in the county. Both the Cape Coral Police Department and the state Attorney General's Office have confirmed they're investigating the company, but they won't say why because civil and criminal investigations are still active. 

The state has received more than 190 consumer complaints about Bruno and his company, including allegations of deceptive practices involving PACE financing. Several homeowners who were signed up for PACE loans have sued the company and its affiliates for fraud and deceptive practices in state court in Lee and Collier counties.

Ygrene Energy Fund, a California-based company, has been one of the largest providers of PACE loans in Collier County and the nation. Mola’s review showed its financing agreements in Collier had repayment terms of anywhere from five to 30 years and interest rates ranging from 6.5% to 9.65%.

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Mola’s analysis of more than 120 homeowner agreements with Ygrene in the county showed an average increase in property taxes of more than 106%.

Although other speakers gave up their time to allow Mola to share her detailed report, she had so much information she couldn’t present it all.

After the commission’s vote Mola said she would have liked to see the county suspend the PACE program for any providers who have “proven unable to adequately manage contractors that have deceived, misrepresented or defrauded Collier County homeowners.” 

For other providers, she said: “Let’s institute strong consumer protections.”

“Every month they delay it’s another 100-and-something people that may be deceived and when you add the fact that the average loan is 20,000-something-dollars, multiply that by 100 and we’ve got a problem,” Mola said.

Ben Taube, managing director of national policy for Ygrene Energy Fund, said after Tuesday’s discussion that the group will get a transcript of Mola’s comments.

“We will respond to each of the allegations with the factual data,” he said.

Taube said Ygrene would like to continue with the PACE program in Collier. He said the company submitted a “comprehensive consumer protection ordinance” to county staff for review. It wasn’t presented Tuesday.

Jeremy Hutman, a representative with Renew Financial, which is among the four PACE providers that operate in Collier, said his company, too, supported consumer protections.

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However, he asked commissioners Tuesday to reject county staff’s proposed ordinance and come back with “a more inclusive process and an ordinance that reflects an engagement with the entire community.”

“We definitely agree, every property owner should be protected under this PACE ordinance, but at the same time it should allow PACE to still operate in the county and help homeowners that do need that help with their property improvements,” Hutman said.

McDaniel, who voted against bringing back the program for discussion at the May 28 meeting, said it was “counterintuitive” to discuss possibly scrapping the program before reviewing a potential consumer protection ordinance with more input from county commissioners. 

He also said that Mola cited “case after case after case of lawsuits with allegations, represented in a lawsuit by one party who has filed a suit, not the responses or any decision from any court.”

“So though those are very valid representations, it’s only half of the story,” McDaniel said.

Saunders said that if the allegations prove to be accurate, the program can’t be fixed by an ordinance. 

“We have no way to craft an ordinance to stop that,” he said. “We can’t stop a bad acting contractor from saying it’s a government program to an individual who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t understand.”

Several speakers shared their stories about PACE financing, alleging they were deceived by bad contractors who did shoddy work and work that didn’t need to be done.

Habitat for Humanity homeowner Marceau Berteau, who had solar panels installed, said a salesman making a cold call told him his electric bill would "become almost zero" with the panels on the roof and not to worry about it because the “government is going to pay for you.”

After having 18 solar panels installed on his roof, Berteau said he hasn't seen the promised savings on his electric bill — and his monthly costs skyrocketed because he financed the project through PACE. 

“The bill is going to be $45,000," he said. “That is a second mortgage and I’m not working.” 

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A bad car crash in March 2017 put Berteau out of work, forcing him to apply for disability. Meanwhile, his wife, a certified nursing assistant, works about 30 hours a week at a nursing home because that's all the time she can get.

Berteau told commissioners that if they love this country and this county they should remove the program and its bad actors because “they are a killer.”

Commissioners on Tuesday also voted 4-1 to bring back a proposed consumer protection ordinance for the program at the board's first meeting in June, which could be moot if they pull the plug on the program before then.

Commissioner Penny Taylor voted against bringing back the ordinance, saying she thinks the program’s residential component needs to end entirely. Taylor and Commissioner Donna Fiala have been critical of the program.

“I’m encouraged that the truth is coming out about this program and I think it underscores the need to terminate it in Collier County,” Taylor said.

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

 

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