Hillsborough affirms opposition to PACE home improvement program

TAMPA — Hillsborough County withdrew a potential lifeline to a controversial home-energy financing program, a year after commissioners voted to kick it out of the county.

Wednesday, Commissioner Harry Cohen asked the board to consider restarting a local version of the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, known commonly as PACE, if it followed a series of consumer safeguards.

Final approval would have required a future vote, but Cohen withdrew his motion after a majority of commissioners said they would reject PACE if the final vote had been Wednesday.

“I don’t like the PACE program. I don’t like the structure. I can’t imagine I’ll vote any other way but ‘no’ on the final version,” Commissioner Mariella Smith told Cohen.

“We don’t have a system that actually has accountability and that’s the problem,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman. “I just don’t think this is the solution.”

“I couldn’t be more opposed. I think the perfect word to describe PACE is predatory,” said Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp.

“If this were to come to a vote today for reimplementation, I would be a ‘no,’ ” said Commissioner Stacy White.

Related: Hillsborough cutes ties to PACE program, unethical business practices

The comments Wednesday affirmed an August 2020 commission vote to terminate the program because of homeowner complaints about unethical behavior from private-sector participants. In December, at the suggestion of White, the board instructed staff members to meet with participants to see if new consumer protections could be developed.

Related: Tax Hit: A Times investigation of PACE

The state-sanctioned PACE program is intended to help homeowners afford energy-efficient upgrades, such as new air conditioners and rooftop solar panels. But a Tampa Bay Times investigation published in September 2020 found the private companies that administer the programs saddled low-income residents with risky loans tied to their property tax bills.

The county said it received 19 complaints against PACE contractors or lenders, including high-pressure sales with little information about long-term loans or assessments provided that caused “the potential victimization of elderly and less advantaged homeowners,”

PACENation, the national non-profit that advocates for the program, reported PACE was responsible for $65 million worth of financing for nearly 3,500 projects in Hillsborough County between 2017 and 2020.

“PACE is really an important option to people who otherwise may not have other options as it relates to financing,” PACE lobbyist Todd Josko of Ballard Partners said in an interview Tuesday.

The proposed safeguards would have included self-reporting by third-party administrators on complaints and resolutions; lending disclosures; use of an income/debt verification; additional information about other loan options; and increased oversight by the county.

Kemp said one PACE home is scheduled to go to tax deed sale later this month, 43 homes are in default and 11 of those are eligible for tax deed sale next year if non-payments continue, she said.

Hillsborough Tax Collector Nancy Millan confirmed the pending tax deed sale and said she shared the commissioners’ concerns. The Greater Tampa Realtors Association also opposed restarting PACE.