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Posted: November 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Covington fighting urban blight

City could apply for state grants to improve homes

In an effort to revitalize the city’s blighted and impoverished areas, Covington officials are researching various state programs that would provide some funding and tax breaks for improvement efforts.

At a meeting last Thursday at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, city officials and members of local nonprofits gathered around a table with Martha Reimann, community development coordinator for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to learn what options were available to them.

According to Reimann, based on certain Census Bureau poverty levels, the city could qualify for Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) funds and Community Development Block Grants, which could be used for things like weatherizing old homes to make them more energy efficient and for encouraging more commercial development in specific urban neighborhoods.

Reimann said there are a number of state statutes already on the books, which local governments are generally not aware of, that can be used to improve communities. Examples of these improvement tools include opportunity zones and enterprise zones.

In opportunity zones the state allows for special $3,500 job tax credits. The use of these credits can be used against 100 percent of income tax liability and withholding by all lawful businesses that have created at least two jobs within the opportunity zone. According to the DCA, for an area to qualify as an opportunity zone it must have a Census Bureau poverty level of equal to or greater than 15 percent. Opportunity zones must be applied to specific areas within a city.

According to the 2000 Census, 14.8 percent of families in Covington and 19.6 percent of individuals were below the poverty level. County-wide those percentages fall to 7.2 percent for families and 10 percent for individuals.

Qualifying criteria for enterprise zones are a little higher and include poverty levels equal or greater to 20 percent, poverty levels greater than 30 percent for at least half of the enterprise zone and an unemployment rate at least 10 percent higher than the state average.

Those businesses that meet new job creation requirements inside the enterprise zone can get a 100 percent property tax exemption for the first five years of the zone’s existence, with declining property tax exemptions in the years following.

"Most of the tools are aimed at obsolescent, crime and poverty areas that are holding communities back," Reimann said.

Reimann said the passage of the state amendment last Tuesday allowing Tax Allocation Districts to be funded with school taxes also offers more options for the city in revitalizing its urban areas.

Covington Mayor Kim Carter said she contacted Reimann for technical advice after she attended a DCA conference on housing revitalization and became excited with the possibilities for improving the city’s blighted areas.

"We came away from there really fired up," Carter said.

The city has already applied for a grant from the state that if awarded would provide three years of free technical assistance in urban revitalization efforts from experts from UGA, DCA and the Georgia Municipal Association. The city will find out whether it has been awarded the grant on Nov. 17.

"I think we have a really good chance of getting this," Carter said of the grant.

Reimann suggested the city work on a "master plan with teeth" for those areas targeted for redevelopment. The plan should supersede underlying development codes and allow the city to be more specific than its zoning ordinance allows on things like front porches and sidewalks. She also suggested that the city "incentivize" more public/private partnerships in the community.

She suggested that the city begin work on a redevelopment plan/strategy as soon as possible.

"The code is really so critical," she said. "It’s where the rubber meets the road."

Carter agreed, saying, "We don’t want to lose momentum."

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