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City election to be held Tuesday

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By Pat Hibbs

In addition to choosing between Lindsey Hager and Brooks Holloway for City Council seat E in the March 4 election, citizens will vote on two referenda.

One measure is designed to bring economic growth to the city by granting ad valorem tax exemptions to new businesses wishing to relocate to Williston and also to significant expansion of existing businesses. The exemption applies to real property made by or for the use of a new business and of all tangible personal property of such new business; the same criteria are applied to expansions of existing businesses. Replacement of equipment in existing businesses is not included. The state statute (196.1995) is quite specific as to the conditions under which such concessions may be granted.

Each application for exemption is to be considered by council separately and enacted by a separate ordinance, which would be subject to the required two readings and public comment opportunity.

Each ordinance may grant exemptions of any percentage of ad valorem taxes to the 100 percent maximum for a specified period of years. Once that term expired, the business would have to re-apply for the exemption if it were warranted.

Once the new or expanding business requests an exemption, the application is sent to the county property appraiser, who responds to the City Council with this information: the amount of ad valorem tax income available to the city for the fiscal year; the amount of income not available by virtue of previous exemptions to other businesses; and the estimated value of ad valorem tax income to be lost should the exemption be granted.

At that point, the council has the information necessary decide on what, if any, exemptions it wishes to propose.

The benefit of these tax exemptions is that they encourage economic growth in the city by providing incentives to business to relocate here or for existing businesses to expand. One of the most important criteria considered by the council before it even allows the process to begin is the number of jobs to be created by the business applying for the exemption. This may entice new residents to the area or allow current residents to work closer to home.

The immediate economic advantage is that new enterprises and new employees will patronize local stores and restaurants, boosting the existing economy.

The long-term economic advantage to the city is increased ad valorem revenue once the exemptions expire. If applicants are granted only partial abatements, of course, the increased ad valorem revenue accrues immediately. In addition, finance director Mark Schiefer points out, new businesses are hooked up to city utilities, thus increasing revenues in that area.

Abatements are recommended and granted on a case-by-case basis, after careful study of the contributions a new or expanded business might make to the community's economy in the near and long term, and of the toll it might exact on city services.

City attorney Norm Fugate said that the practice of granting such exemptions is a relatively common one across the state. He added that the city had the power to grant exemptions until about 2003, when it expired. Schiefer added that Monterey Boats, the centerpiece of the Williston Industrial Park, had taken advantage of the abatements, as had A&N Corporation, though their exemption is now over.

City Council president Debra French Jones supports the referendum; she commented that the tax abatements would encourage businesses to come to the Airport Industrial Park. She added that ability to grant ad valorem exemptions is a valuable tool in any city's ability to attract new enterprises that suit the city's economic plans.

The second referendum would extend the terms of the mayor and City Council members from two years to three. The measure would take several years to be fully enacted, because elections would still be held annually, with only two of the six seats being contested rather than the current three.

The ordinance contains specifications regarding which terms would conclude in which years.

Retiring councilman Jerry Robinson is in favor of the extended terms. He said, "I believe it would be in the best interest of the people and the council because it would allow time for new councilors to familiarize themselves with the duties of the council and not to worry about running for re-election in their second year. If there are projects that new and existing councilors have on the drawing board it would enable them time to complete the projects and fulfill the best interest of the residents of the city."

Jones agrees that the ordinance as written, with elections for two seats each year, is a good one. She said that it allows orderly transitions on the council and lessens the possibility that the complexion of that body can be radically altered in a single election.

This proposal was included in a series of charter amendments submitted to the public several years ago and, along with other amendments changing the structure of the council and duties of council members, was rejected.

The election will be held on March 4. Only residents of the city of Williston are entitled to vote. The polling place at the community center in the City Hall complex is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.