Budget amendment bitter-sweet for Pierce County historic preservation

When the dust settles at the end of this month, and Pierce County finalizes its amended General Fund budget to bridge an estimated $8- to $10- million revenue shortfall, county-wide historic preservation programming will come away with its share of bumps and bruises — and a couple small victories.

On the down-side, funding for Historical Document Maintenance is expected to drop from $627,200 to $496,200. The bulk of the cut will impact money set aside for a long-overdue county-wide historical property survey. In 2007, the county council allocated $366,000 toward the historic survey. A budget amendment released by the county executive’s office earlier this year aimed to reduce that figure to $111,000. However, an amendment proposed and approved March 18 by the council provides $180,000 — more than the county executive’s recommendation, but less than half of the original amount allotted for the survey.

Another bit of bad news: $131,000 collected through state Legislation will be spread across all departments to cover their historical document micro-filming, records retention, and other state-archivist expenditures. It’s money that could be spent on historic preservation projects that could spur economic development.

What’s troubling, however, is all the money set aside for historic preservation was collected at no cost to the county. As background, the money had accrued as a result of state legislation enacted in 2005. The legislation directed $1 of a $5 filing fee toward “historic preservation and historical programming, which may include document preservation.”
Between 2005 and 2008, revenue from the surcharge reached just over $1 million, according to county officials.

In November 2007, the county council approved an ordinance directing $366,000 for a historic property survey, $60,000 for a historic document survey, $200,000 for a grant program, $37,000 to turn the half-time historic preservation officer into a full-time position, and $37,000 for a part-time grant writer.

However, the county has only spent money on some of those directives. Now, in the middle of a budget deficit, the money is being used to cover historical document micro-filming, records retention, and other state-archivist expenditures throughout county departments when it could be spent, for example, to fully fund the grant program for preservation projects throughout Pierce County, as well as the county-wide historical property survey.

Indeed, it’s money that should have already been spent.

According to the county’s Budget and Finance Department, $173,529 was expended in 2006 for “internal purposes”; $65,524 was expended in 2008 for a grant program and funding for the part-time preservation officer; this year, $100,000 was allocated for document preservation purposes, and $108,000 for historical document microfilming, records retention and management, and other state archivist related expenditures department-wide. Although Historic Tacoma has asked for line-item details on what “internal purposes” and “document preservation purposes” specifically mean, the organization has yet to receive an answer, according to board president Sharon Winters.

Subtracting those expenditures — roughly $446,000 — from the $1 million pool would leave approximately $554,000 for historic preservation, historical programming, and document preservation.

To its credit, the county did award approximately $195,000 in grants to more than a dozen local preservation groups for various projects last year. The money will be paid out to the organizations on a reimbursement basis.

Two positive developments, however, could come out of the budget amendment approved this week.

First, the amendment would increase the historic preservation officer position from part-time to full-time. It’s no small feat at a time when the county is looking everywhere to close the deficit — some departments face one-percent budget reductions; others face three-percent reductions.

Second, Pierce County Councilmember Tim Farrell is pushing to move the preservation office from Planning and Land Services (PALS) to the Economic Development department. The move would put the county in line with most other municipalities in terms of where to place the historic preservation office. It could also be the first step toward convincing the county that historic preservation isn’t just a nice thing to have — it’s an economic development tool.

The council is expected to vote on a final amended budget March 31.

On March 18, several people appeared before the council’s Committee of the Whole to share their views of the budget amendment as it relates to historic preservation. County Councilmember Tim Farrell also commented on the issue. Here are excerpts of what they said during and after the meeting.

– SHARON WINTERS, BOARD PRESIDENT, HISTORIC TACOMA —

I’m speaking on the proposed $131,000 transfer of funds from the county’s historic preservation program. At the March 10 County Council meeting, the preservation community outlined several reasons why the funding should not be transferred.

I’d like to focus on two areas.

First, lack of compelling need for another $131,000 for document preservation by county departments. Since 2005, the county has received over $4 million in new funding for preservation of historical documents for county departments, but the county budget manager is unable to provide detail as to how that money has been expended beyond its distribution to county departments or how the proposed transfer will be expended. I understand that the county has no organization-wide system for records management, so I am also concerned about how effectively these funds are being used. While acknowledging the budget crisis, with no detail on how these funds have or will be used, I believe there is a more compelling case to conduct the historic resource inventories, as planned.

Second, a need to equitably distribute court filing fee revenues collected across the county. Over $1 million has been collected to date from the one dollar surcharge, designated by the legislature “to promote historical preservation or historical programming.”

Since 2005, close to half has been retained for “ongoing preservation of historical documents of county departments.”

By agreement of the Pierce County Landmarks Preservation Commission and the county’s Historic Preservation Office, early this year $336,000 was to be distributed, based on population, to the county and city historic preservation programs in Tacoma, Steilacoom, Lakewood, Puyallup, and Gig Harbor to support historic resource inventories. Tacoma, which has been proactive about historic preservation but still has areas of the city which have not been inventoried in close to 30 years, was due to receive approximately $90,000.
Colleagues from Lakewood, Tacoma and Gig Harbor spoke last week about their needs and how they would put the funding to use.

I’d like to comment on Councilman Farrell’s proposed budget amendment. We support his amendment to fund creation of a full-time historic preservation officer for the county with revenue from the one-dollar surcharge. The ad hoc committee, formed by Councilman Farrell in late 2007, recommended additional staffing beyond the current half-time position. Until the county has adequate staffing levels and the professional expertise and experience in historic preservation on board, effective management of the county’s historic preservation program and this new funding stream will be difficult.

Though we acknowledge Councilman Farrell’s proposal to transfer $131,000 rather than $225,000, we must respectfully express concern that it leaves just $180,000 for inventory work, when $336,000 was originally allocated.

We recommend that County Council leave the $225,000 in the historic preservation program so these much-needed and long-overdue inventories can be accomplished and staffing can be added.

– TIM FARRELL, PIERCE COUNTY COUNCILMEMBER —

I’ve heard some people commend us on historical document preservation, I’ve heard some people harangue us on it. Here’s a little bit of education on where that money is coming from. It comes from a dollar surcharge the Legislature gave us the ability to affect. Some legislators have come to me and said Pierce County needs to make sure we be careful about how we spend that money because if it is not spent in the way the Legislature wishes us to spend it, they will take that away. So we could, in theory, eliminate the entire department and the entire program. But what would happen is the Legislature would say, ‘OK, you don’t need that money. Fine.’ And they would take it away. So it’s either cuts now or cuts later. At least this way we are able to have some kind of wiggle room until we get to a better position.

– CHRIS MOORE, FIELD DIRECTOR, WASHINGTON TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION —

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you here this morning. My name is Chris Moore and I am the field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. We are a state-wide, non-profit advocacy group that works to safeguard Washington’s cultural and historic resources. I just want to briefly speak to you about the county’s historic preservation program.

It’s been alluded to earlier, but of course in 2005 the state Legislature passed House Bill 1386 that includes increasing the recording fee from two dollars to five dollars, and then a part of that bill required earmarking one dollar of that to go to historic preservation programming. Since that time, several counties across the state have implemented programming. Given the revenue that was generated from this fund, Pierce County is well positioned.

I think the proposal to have a full-time historic preservation officer is long overdue, and certainly a welcomed one.

There are a couple concerns that I wanted to bring up. It’s great to see the grant program in place, but it would be great to have annual grant awards.

The initial grant cycle in 2008 was an annual source of funding. Wonderful. Not funding a new grant cycle for 2009, and just moving it forward from 2008 because not all the money had been spent is a concern because it is an annual source of revenue, and there should be concurrent annual grant cycle.

It’s very good to have the $180,00 for survey work, but I know that’s diminished.

I just want to note that surveying is really the foundation of all historic preservation work. The National Park Service released their 2008 annual report for the Federal Historic Tax Credit. Through this program, nearly $5.7 billion was invested in qualified historic rehabilitation projects. Nearly 67,000 jobs created through that investment, and nearly 17,000 housing units.

In Washington State, between 2000 and 2005, an average of $84 million per year was invested in historic properties. It’s the survey and a full-time historic preservation officer that identifies the properties that are eligible to participate in that historic tax credit program. So really what we are talking about is funding for economic development.

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For earlier Index coverage of Pierce County historic preservation, see the following:

1. Department shift for Pierce County’s historic preservation program? (03/16/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1509016&more=0

2. Pierce County Council Committee will discuss proposed historic preservation funding cuts (03/06/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1503447&more=0

3. Will $8 million budget shortfall touch Pierce County historic preservation? (01/29/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1479375&more=0

4. Behind The Times (04/02/08) — http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_pierce_county_preservation.pdf .

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