Supporters defend downtown tax abatement program

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 3, 2000

Mena Stowers hasn’t necessarily profited from a tax abatement for her downtown historic property.

But the tax break offered by the City of Natchez has helped her, she said.

&uot;It’s not a direct benefit,&uot; Stowers said. &uot;It’s just a way to try to get people to fix these downtown buildings, because they look so empty and sad.&uot;

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Stowers is one of only three people who have applied for the tax abatement program for historic buildings since the board of aldermen adopted the program last December.

But recent comments at an aldermen meeting as well as letters to the editor have raised a number of questions about the city’s tax abatement policies.

The tax abatement program Stowers is taking part in is part of a three-pronged program called the Historic Downtown Natchez Revitalization Incentive Program, which also includes a low-interest loan program and tax credits for historic preservation.

City officials and supporters of the program say it serves as an incentive by providing additional assistance to property owners wanting to renovate an existing property or construct a new building in the historic downtown area.

Those who oppose the program say it discriminates against business owners outside the downtown area and abatement applicants are chosen for the wrong reasons.

Mimi Miller, Historic Natchez Foundation executive director, said one common misconception of abatements is that the program exempts property owners in the central business district from existing property taxes.

&uot;It does not,&uot; Miller said. &uot;The program offers only a temporary tax freeze at the current level.&uot;

How long and at what amount property taxes are frozen depends on how much money is spent on revitalization or new construction, City Planner David Preziosi said.

The minimum investment must be $20,000 with at least 25 percent of that on the public facade.

A sliding scale of money invested determines how long taxes are frozen, ranging from three to seven years, and the cost of acquiring the property is not eligible.

Following the abatement period, the property is taxed at the normal appraisal rate.

Only those properties located within the historic downtown district are eligible and all applicants must submit detailed records to be approved by the board of aldermen.

Similar tax abatement programs have been in operation across the state since 1972, Miller said.

In the past, the city has granted tax abatements to industries like Titan Tire and International Paper, but Preziosi and Miller said they are not aware of any abatements for retail properties.

Since December, three groups have applied for abatements and all three were approved by the aldermen, Preziosi said.

Local accounting firm Switzer, Hopkins & Mange, Wilcox Energy Company and Mena Stowers and Jerry Ferrill are currently operating under tax abatements.

Besides making the downtown more attractive, renovation of downtown businesses also has indirect economic benefits, Preziosi said, like increased sales tax revenue and draws on outside industry.

&uot;We feel there’s a tradeoff,&uot; he said. &uot;In return we get an increased sales taxes, higher employment and keep the downtown looking nice.&uot;

The condition of a city’s downtown is a direct indication of the quality of life, Preziosi said.

When potential industry or businesses scout locations, education and quality of life are important considerations, Preziosi said.

&uot;A community that cares about its downtown — its public face — sends a message to industries that it will care about them and versa,&uot; Miller said.

The 1972 state law, amended in 1989, states that only privately-owned structures located within the &uot;central business district or historic preservation district or on a historic landmark site, as determined by the municipality,&uot; are eligible for tax abatements.

Preziosi said the city determined the downtown district using state requirements and it is not intended to discriminate against those businesses outside the boundary.

Gene Simonton of Specs Optical Shoppe does not agree. &uot;I feel that most people who get tax abatements are special interest who have the money anyway,&uot; Simonton said. &uot;Even though they got (the tax abatement) legally, it is still very unjust.&uot;

Another local businessman, Dr. Byron Garrity, also said the abatements are unfair.

&uot;I&160;have a problem with the way they give out tax abatements,&uot; Garrity said.

Preferential treatment is given to certain people with business, family or personal connections, Garrity said.

Rather than basing tax abatements on how much money is spent on renovations, applications should be looked at in terms of how much sales tax revenue the business will bring in, he said.