Two bills before Legislature could help Huntsville area, state compete in next BRAC

Grand Opening Ceremony of the Army Materiel Command BuildingThe Army Materiel Command and its subordinate, the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, whose new headquarters buildings on Redstone Arsenal are shown here, were two of the big wins for Huntsville in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process. Two bills now before the Legislature are aimed at helping the area compete in coming BRAC rounds. (The Huntsville Times/Eric Schultz)HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — A bill before the Legislature would allow school boards in the Huntsville area to borrow money to build new classrooms without raising local taxes.

The bill seeks to eliminate the requirement that BRAC-affected school systems receive an increase in sales or property tax rates before becoming eligible for special renovation or construction bonds. The bill holds significant implications for the rural Madison County school system, which does not have the money to build new schools nor a municipality able to raise taxes.

It’s also one of two bills designed to help the area compete in the next round of Base Realignment and Closure decisions, which have been rumored to come as early as 2013 or ’15, or both. Both bills make changes to already-existing laws.

Senate Bill 245 amends a 2010 act that allows the Alabama Public School and College Authority to sell up to $175 million in bonds for schools crowded by growth from the 2005 BRAC.

“We’re hoping that now, with some of the new faces and new relationships in Montgomery, that we’re able to loosen some of the constraints in the original BRAC bill that were a little unrealistic,” said State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, who sponsored the bill.

“The 2012 bill just tweaks some of the standards that were put in place in 2010 to hopefully increase the participation by the school districts for construction,” said co-sponsor State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

SB 245 decreases the number of full-time jobs that must be proved to have been created by the 2005 BRAC from 7,000 to 4,700 – about the number of federal positions that were moved to the arsenal. And it lowers the required average salary or equivalent wage of those jobs from $85,000 to $80,000.

The bill also changes the baseline date for those measures from 2010 to 2006. It still requires a dollar-for-dollar match in local support for the capital projects.

Primarily, the bill clarifies the job and income accounting tests to be met to access the money.

Local officials found that the very competitive companies in Research Park and elsewhere aren’t always willing to release precise data about their employees, said Joe Ritch, chair of the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee. So the amended bill ties the bond requirements simply to growth on Redstone Arsenal.

“We are still expecting about 5,000 contractor jobs over time. Many of them have already moved here. But an accurate calculation is almost impossible,” Ritch said.

SB 245 is currently being considered by the senate Finance and Taxation-Education committee.

Orr is sponsor of another bill, SB 234, that would expand the ability of the Huntsville Federal Building Authority – and similar groups across the state – to spend local tax or other dollars in support of activities on federal property such as Redstone Arsenal. The bill goes beyond allowing spending on construction projects.

“It allows a little more flexibility,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. For instance, the bill would let the city authority hire consultants and acquire other tools to help with BRAC planning, he said.

Ritch said they could also support studies and the production of videos and other materials to help promote the area to BRAC decision-makers and employees considering moving here.

“We looked at the (original) bill and it really only allowed capital expenditures,” he said. “This opens up what we can do with that authority.”

The Huntsville City Council recently appointed new members to the Federal Building Authority, originally created to build modern homes for generals on Redstone Arsenal. It now also handles some matters related to the long-term, $1 billion Redstone Gateway office park now under way on 470 acres of arsenal land.

Orr pointed out the bill could benefit other areas adjacent to federal installations, such as Montgomery near Maxwell Air Force Base, or Dale County, Dothan, Ozark and Enterprise near Fort Rucker, or Anniston near the Anniston Army Depot.

The Senate approved SB 234 on Feb. 16 and it has been referred to the House Committee on County and Municipal Government.

Neither bill obligates any money, and Battle expects both to pass the Legislature. “Every time that we have asked they have responded,” he said. “We’ve been able to show them what our needs were, how to achieve those needs, and they have been very supportive.”

Orr said a lot of the “low hanging fruit” – the easier decisions – were made in the 1995 and 2005 BRAC rounds. The bills are needed because, in the next BRAC rounds, communities across the country will be even more competitive as they fight for new jobs, or at least hold on to what they have.

“Now, going forward, it gets even more difficult to be successful,” Orr said.

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