County to hear from public July 21 on tax abatement policy

Published 11:12 am Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Abatements on property taxes paid to Warren County could end indefinitely as the Board of Supervisors agreed Monday to take public comment next month on plans to throw out the county’s current ordinance governing the program.

The program, popular for years among commercial interests in Vicksburg’s historic district downtown, was expanded by the City of Vicksburg in the past 18 months to include businesses outside the historic zone. State law that Mississippi cities follow to approve abatements don’t specifically bind counties to follow suit — a point supervisors sought to clarify with a 3-2 vote to hold a public hearing on scrapping and re-writing its own policy. The hearing is set for 10 a.m. July 21.

Board President Bill Lauderdale was the deciding vote to hold a hearing on what to do with the policy, a move proposed by District 1 Supervisor John Arnold and seconded by District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon.

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“Before we get any more of them coming in here, let’s do away with it and develop something we might need and take our time looking at it,” Lauderdale said.

State law specifies central business districts, historic preservation districts, business improvement districts, urban renewal districts and historic landmarks as areas where the exemptions are legal. Cities are given the latitude to define each as they see fit. Counties generally follow cities’ lead, though Warren County supervisors’ willingness to OK abatements for two car dealerships that front Interstate 20 continued earlier this month with just a bare majority.

Passed in 2005, the county’s abatement program is good for seven years on commercial properties whose owners remodel or otherwise improve their buildings and already have an abatement in hand from the city. It differs from the city’s policy in that it doesn’t include multifamily structures and says the property must have been redeveloped by demolition. It sets a minimum investment for a seven-year abatement at $300,000 and excludes, though does not define, routine maintenance.

Despite the differences in what it covers compared to the city’s program, supervisors who favored a possible overhaul indicated it was simply a chance to start over.

“Remove it,” Arnold said. “Then, if we want to, we can rewrite it.”

District 5 Supervisor Richard George and District 2 Supervisor William Banks voiced no objection immediately after the vote. Both had supported simple enforcement of the county’s current ordinance.

Earlier in Monday’s session, the board accepted for information a letter from developers of the recently restored Aeolian Senior Apartments and the soon-to-be rebuilt former Carr Central building that withdrew their interest in pursuing tax abatements on each Cherry Street structure.

In the letter, Jeremy Mears of Texas-based Brownstone thanked the city and county “in helping us bring quality housing to Vicksburg.” Supervisors said the development group had sought abatements locally and a special designation that results in lower assessed values for rent-assisted property. The board was against granting the firm the abatement had the state approved the so-called “Section 42” designation.

Brownstone’s application was moot, as it was already rescinded by the city. However, the company wanted a rescinding vote from both sides.

“Once (the city) rescinded it, we’re automatically out of the picture,” George said before moving to nix the company’s request. “It makes no difference what we do.”


On the agenda

Meeting Monday, the Warren County Board of Supervisors:

• Set a public hearing for 9 a.m. Monday on looming work to shore up erosion alongside Haining Road.

The $2 million project to improve drainage and rebuild sliding soil will be funded primarily by a federal block grant, the use of which prompts comments be taken from the public.

• Approved a memorandum of understanding between the Warren County Port Commission and the Culkin Water District that says the two entities will find out how much it will cost to bring two water towers at Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex to state health department standards.

An estimate by the commission included with the memorandum pegs the cost to repaint and replace parts on the two elevated tanks at $919,368.

The agreement said the commission and the water district will share costs for any funding mechanism not covered by grant money.

• Approved sending a letter to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety to obtain a radio tower on Whatley Road. The structure isn’t used by the state anymore and was damaged by storms in April, county officials said.

• Authorized the board president to sign an application for emergency work on Bowmar Avenue using funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The work is estimated at $125,000.

• Directed board attorney Marcie Southerland to begin legal reviews of titles to eight parcels of land along Henry Lake Road. Liens and other issues must be cleared if the county has hopes to repave 1.4 miles of the road.

• Approved travel and other costs to Biloxi for Tax Assessor Angela Brown for a continuing certification course on Sunday and Monday.