Mayor Teresa JacobsT made it clear that Orange County government is not the entity to help arrange financing for energy-efficiency and solar power home improvements for low-income residents, a program she said is too risk for consumers and inappropriate for the county.
On Tuesday Jacobs and the Republican majority of the Orange County Commission spoke in harsh terms regarding a plan posed by Democratic Commissioner Emily Bonilla for the county to join scores of Florida cities and counties, including Orlando, Winter Park and Kissimmee, which have set up programs to implement the Property Assessed Clean Energy authorized by the state.
Under PACE, financing systems are set up to be backed by special tax assessments, giving home owners the opportunity to pay for new roofs, windows, insulation, heating and air conditioning or energy systems such as solar panels. They then pay for the improvements through a special tax collected by the government, then remitted to the financier.
Jacobs contended that in other places PACE is sullied by consumer protection issues, class-action lawsuits, and anecdotes of people who cannot and should not afford to make major home improvements, doing so, with the local city or county essentially holding the note.
There was nothing to vote on Tuesday, and Jacobs made it clear that unless major changes are made in PACE, there won’t be.
“I’m extremely uncomfortable that that becomes our role,” Jacobs said. “This is more than the role of an energy advisor, this is taking on the role of the bank.”
A flustered Bonilla, who was backed by 14 public speakers who came to extoll the virtues of PACE programs in helping low-income homeowners and in striving toward civic energy sustainability, Later expressed frustration that the mayor and commission wouldn’t even consider the prospect of writing a PACE program that could address concerns.
Jacobs was backed by supportive statements from Commissioners Betsy VanderLey, Jennifer Thompson, Bryan Nelson, and Pete Clarke, all Republicans. Democratic Commissioner Victoria Siplin did not enter the discussion.
Bonilla disputed that PACE would put Orange County in the home-improvement loan banking business, saying that could be farmed out to a non-profit or other entities, and that all Orange County would do is set up everything up for the payments to be made through property assessments.
“The PACE program can be whatever you want it to be, so any concerns we have, we can address,” Bonilla said. “It has already been done in other places. We had a perfect opportunity.”
The stand-off and victory for Jacobs was another episode in a cold war that has brewed almost since the moment Bonilla took office in December. Another episode also occurred Tuesday when the two debated the mayor’s decision to require that certain board appointments made by commissioners – in this case one from Bonilla – would not appear on the consent agenda as a routine matter, but would be placed on the discussion agenda.