Updated May 18, 2017 – How old must buildings be before they are considered historic? Should tax credits for their preservation be split evenly across the state or allowed to cluster in the cities?
Both are questions still in play as the Alabama Legislature considers restoring a program that supported renewal efforts, most notably in Birmingham and Mobile.
A version of the historic preservation tax credit, which has helped fund restoration of 51 buildings across the state so far, has been passed by the House, and a version was passed by the Senate. Because the Senate-passed bill was revised to address several issues that had been raised, it must go back to the House to be voted up or down or be changed again. Friday is the Legislature’s last day in the session.
Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, said the important thing is to get the money flowing to the program again. Gaston said that not only do the tax credits help pay to restore often dilapidated buildings, but those projects create jobs for the construction workers and craftsmen employed to do the work.
As introduced, Gaston’s bill would grant tax credits of up to $5 million per project to developers who are renovating historic buildings. Up to $20 million in tax credits could be issued each year, with the money coming from sales tax revenues in the Education Trust Fund.
One big change from the previous program, which lapsed last year after the Legislature did not extend it, is that projects to be granted the tax credits would be determined by a new Historic Tax Credit Evaluating Committee, made up by state officials.
Previously the tax credits were granted on a first come, first served basis.
One change made in the substitute for the House bill that was approved by a Senate committee is that it would allow tax credits to be used only on buildings 60 years or older. Under Gaston’s bill and the program as it operated until last year, buildings 50 years old may qualify.
But an earlier Senate version of the bill had been amended to require that buildings be 75 years old or older to be qualify for a tax credit.
Gaston said earlier that he preferred allowing 50-year-old buildings to be eligible, but that’s open for discussion.
Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, a supporter of the tax credits and the only senator who voted against the changes made in the Senate version of the bill, said requiring structures to be 75 years old or older would rule out tax credits to preserve buildings that are historic because of their significance during the Civil Rights Movement. He also said federal regulations generally consider 50 years as the cutoff for historic buildings.
One of the biggest changes made in the Senate committee substitute was requiring that 40 percent of tax credits awarded each year be awarded in counties with populations of 175,000 or fewer people. That mean 40 percent of the money would go to projects outside the state’s seven largest counties.
Originally, the House bill left the decision for awarding the money in the hands of the evaluating committee. Changes made earlier this year in the Senate version of the bill would have divided tax credits evenly among the congressional districts.
Gaston, who said he has no historic buildings in his district, said that if the tax credits are good for Birmingham and Mobile and put people to work, then that’s good for the state.
But he said he understands the need to make sure that more buildings in different parts of the state get a shot at the tax credits.
Of the 51 projects that received tax credits under the previous program, 20 were in Birmingham,15 were in Mobile and six were in Tuscaloosa. The rest of the projects were scattered around the state.
Critics of the amendments have said dividing the money by congressional district would limit tax credits that could be granted to any one project at the start of the year to less than $3 million, and that might not be enough incentive for a developer to carry through on renovation plans.
Gaston said there are different levels of interest in historic preservation in various parts of the state, so he’s comfortable that some of those credits would be unclaimed and return to the bigger cities.
Despite the desire to tweak parts of the tax credit program, the bill has gotten widespread support this year.
After failing last year because of fears about the cost to the state, this year the bill has 87 co-sponsors in the 105-member House of Representatives and 29 co-sponsors in the 35-member Senate.