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Travis commissioners vote to keep historic tax exemption in place

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County’s existing property tax exemption for historic landmarks is safe for now. On Tuesday the Commissioners Court voted to hold off on any changes to the hotly debated incentive for the 2011 tax year.


The court’s action came on a motion from County Judge Sam Biscoe. In it, Biscoe was clear that his preference is for the court to await steps that the City of Austin might take to change its historic tax exemption. “I believe that the county should delay action, and indicate our intent to work with the City of Austin on this issue,” he said.


The commissioners voted after intense citizen testimony on the matter. Testimony came from voices both for and against a continuation of the exemption. However, exemption supporters mustered a larger turnout than their opponents.


Travis County examined the question from the broader perspective provided by a review of all of the county’s tax policies. A working group tasked by the court to do that work concluded that the county’s tax exemptions should be rebalanced in a way that offers more county give-backs to homeowners who are 65 and older, and the disabled. That adjustment would have come at the expense of county residents who currently receive historic property tax exemptions.


City of Austin Planning Commission Vice Chair and former Heritage Society President Mandy Dealey argued that the recent election of Kathie Tovo to the Place 3 Council Seat amounted to an area referendum on historic zoning. “Historic preservation was a large campaign issue in a recent City Council election and the candidate supporting historic preservation won by a landslide,” she said. However, Tovo did not campaign on the historic preservation issue but concentrated on making Austin more affordable.


Dealey asked the court to delay any action until after the city makes a move. “I think it is very important that all of the taxing entities work in concert on this,” she said. “We acknowledge that the city’s program is not perfect … (but) your support of that ongoing process is extremely important.”


Tovo campaign treasurer Joe Pinnelli echoed those sentiments. “Please don’t do anything reckless,” he said. “I pledge to you to work with the city to iron out the anomalies in this process.”


On the other side, developer Rick Hardin – who himself has worked on historic properties – questioned the equity of the program. “You’re faced with the task of weighing, ‘Is the person that is over 65 more needy of assistance or is a person in a historic designated landmark?’” he said. “I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told her colleagues that she was ready to move forward with at least one change. “While I do think that there are some questions that are outstanding … I think that we do have enough information today to move on a $2,500 cap,” she suggested.


Her colleagues mostly disagreed. Huber joined Biscoe on his motion, as did Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez. Eckhardt and Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis voted against the idea.


On Tuesday afternoon, supporters of the historic landmark exemption received an email that encouraged them to thank the commissioners. “This is a great win for preservation,” wrote Saving Austin’s Maureen Metteauer.

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