By DAVID GREEN
Morenci could soon join a growing list of communities choosing to take advantage of the state's Commercial Rehabilitation Act to encourage improvements in downtown property. The act became law in 2005.
The owner of commercial property participating in the program could have property taxes generated by the investment abated for 10 years.
Improvements to property would likely lead to higher taxes, explained Morenci mayor Keith Pennington, but participation in the program would lock in the existing tax rate before the rehabilitation began.
Examples of eligible improvements include interior and exterior appearances, floor replacement, new heating and ventilation equipment, improved roof structure and other changes required to restore or change the property to an "economically efficient condition."
Vacant property that was used for a commercial purpose within the past 15 years is also eligible. Land and personal property are not eligible for the abatement.
When a council committee discussed the issue, Pennington said, a suggestion was made to consider including aesthetic regulations for downtown property. At this time the city has no guidelines on the appearance of a building.
The first step in the process would be to establish a rehabilitation district or districts. The properties covered by Downtown Development Authority (DDA) could be used, for example, and another district could include the commercial property on the east edge of town, from the skating rink to the Dollar General store.
Pennington said he and city administrator/clerk Renée Schroeder recently presented the idea to the DDA board.
"They were encouraging us to adopt the commercial rehabilitation district," he said, "however they did not encourage us to attach any aesthetic strings to that."
"I like the idea of attaching the aesthetic strings," councilor Brenda Spiess said, "only because I think this is an excellent way for us to partner with our businesses to have a downtown that we are all proud of. We’ll help them do the upgrade while giving them some benefit in return.”
Pennington noted that any improvements that aren't part of the rehab zone would not have to follow any aesthetic rules, but the tax break would act as an incentive to conform to guidelines on appearances.
The mayor said he wants the planning commission to become active again to examine the issue of aesthetics. Whether it's the planning commission or council, he said, he wants the process to be clearly thought out.
"I don't want aesthetics to become a stumbling block."
Pennington said the rehab act would apply for anyone wishing to build on vacant property in the district, such as beside the Observer office or next to the Pizza Box. It could also abate taxes for an expansion of the grocery store.
Council will continue discussion at its next meeting. Council member Tracy Schell would like to see a district in place by the end of the year. Once a district is established, property owners and taxing units must be notified of a public hearing. After a hearing, the plan must be presented to the county commissioners who have 28 days to approve or veto the project.
If the rehab project is put into place, Pennington said, council would consider each application on a case-by-case basis.
CONTRACT—Council approved a contract with the police union by a 5-0 vote, with councilors Jeff Bell and Rebecca Berger absent.
INSURANCE—Schroeder reported that Blue Cross insurance costs are expected to rise 6.6 percent—a substantial amount, but less than the rumored double-digit increase.
PUMP—Council approved the expenditure of $18,387 to replace a high-service water pump that distributes water throughout the city and fills the water tower.
PEDDLERS—Council was given a second reading of a proposed ordinance governing peddlers and solicitors. Spiess said she liked the current proposal, but would like to remove the requirements for registering with the city. She doesn't think that process should be part of the law.
FIRE DEPT.—Council approved the removal of Kyle McClain from the roster of fire department employees due to missed meetings and work detail.
PARADE—Council learned that the annual holiday lighted parade is scheduled Dec. 1.