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AISD, City of Austin to coordinate inspections of historic landmarks

Friday, February 24, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin Independent School District’s board of trustees is poised to enter an interlocal agreement with the City of Austin to provide logistical support for the review and inspection of historic landmarks.


This would bring resolution to an ongoing two-year debate on the board as to whether AISD should, or financially could, provide abatements for historic properties located within the district boundaries. The abatement program was suspended in 2010 and only reinstated with the promise of a thorough review on the part of both the city and the school district.


At a workshop session on Monday night, city Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky assured the board that the city’s revised program was both tougher and fairer, highlighting truly worthy landmarks.


“Our revisions really have been limited to three areas,” Sadowsky said. “The first, and most important, is the ad valorem tax exemptions. We also tightened up the designation criteria so that landmarks are more special and significant. And some additional programmatic recommendations were made to equalize the inventory of landmarks.”


In other words, the goal of the historic landmark program going forward would be to encourage landmarks beyond the big grand houses in Judges Hill or Hyde Park. Instead, future landmarks would represent a broad range of ethnic and economic classes and tax abatements would focus on those who could demonstrate a clear financial need in their applications.


Some trustees, like Robert Schneider, have been skeptical about the rigor of the city’s landmark selection process.


“We have residences and business landmarked where the only thing they seem to have is that they’re more than 50 years old,” Schneider told his colleagues.


Under the interlocal agreement, which is up for a vote on Monday night, Austin would designate and inspect landmarks but the ability to grant tax abatement would still lie with each jurisdiction, general counsel Mel Waxler told the board.


AISD’s abatements, like the city’s, are in a three-tier system, depending on when the property came into the pipeline. And, like Austin, AISD will roll back abatements on older properties once they are sold so that older larger abatements will be taken off the books as time goes by.


Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley-Abrams told the board it might consider lifting the cap on AISD’s abatement from $2,500 to $3,500, given that $3,400 was the value of the average current abatement. She also noted that AISD picked up a far larger slice of the tax pie. AISD taxes are 53 percent of the total tax bill.


Chair Mark Williams, reframing the charges to the board at the end of the discussion, expressed some concern about the cost of the program, which is still only a fraction of what the city offers to landmarks. The current program costs the district $360,000 on a portfolio of about $4 million in properties.


“We’ve already heard a little bit about school finance,” said Williams, referring to an earlier briefing on the pending school finance lawsuit. “We’re not sure where we stand as a district, not knowing whether we will have state budget cuts or benefits of recapture. We don’t know how it’s going to shake out. We could be under a whole different school finance arrangement going forward.”


Trustees did appear to be ready to move forward with the interlocal agreement while expressing no clear direction on the tax cap proposal.


An additional component of the project, at the behest of trustee Victor Torres, is to infuse district social studies curriculum with information gathered on local landmarks. Maureen Matteauer of the Heritage Society of Austin and social studies coordinator Terry Loessen briefed the board on efforts to gather information, including efforts at the University of Texas to create an online database of landmarks that could be accessed by classrooms.


Torres, in particular, would like to tie the amount of the exemption to the willingness of the property to provide some benefit to the Austin Independent School District. For instance, a property owner that entered information into the database or provided access for student research projects might be given the full $3,500 exemption while those who didn’t participate might be limited to $2,500 or possibly given no tax abatement at all.


“For those wanting to work with the district, I’m absolutely in favor of maximum tax relief,” Torres said. “For the others, much less so, and I’m probably not going to support that tax abatement.”

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