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Talent plans will hurt fire, emergency medical coverage

Just 17 months ago Jackson County Fire District 5 received a 911 call at 11:07 a.m. for a half-acre brush fire that had ignited in a dry field adjacent to Almeda Drive in Ashland. Easterly winds pushed the fire toward the Bear Creek bike path, which paralleled Interstate 5. What began as a brush fire quickly became an urban fire as winds continued to blow north and northwest.

Thirty-foot-tall flames destroyed neighborhood after neighborhood. Fire hydrants ran dry, and crews were left with 2,000-gallon water tenders to fight an unimaginable fire. More than 35,871 acres burned, 2,800 structures were destroyed, and 9,000 residents were rendered homeless and/or unemployed. FEMA estimated $1 billion in damages.

That day, Jackson County Fire District 5 lost its oldest fire station, located in Phoenix. We sustained more than $500,000 in damages to our headquarters station adjacent to the City of Talent. We lost 90% of our tax base. Yet our recovery from the devastating impacts of the Almeda Fire has been managed without new taxes.

Until now, the fire district was proud of its long-standing cooperative relationships with the leadership of the city of Talent and Talent Urban Renewal (TURA). I am deeply saddened this is no longer the case.

Since early 2021, the city of Talent and TURA have quietly been working on the establishment of a new urban renewal project to cover 25% of the city. This will negatively impact the fire district’s entire 140-square-mile service area. We serve a significant portion of the south end of Jackson County, including the I-5-Highway 99 corridor from Medford south 27 miles to the Oregon-California state line, which also includes the cities of Talent and Phoenix and rural Ashland. Make no mistake, every resident in the 140-square-mile service area will pay for the city of Talent’s project.

Talent’s new urban renewal project will redirect property taxes from Rogue Valley Transportation District, the Southern Oregon Education Service District, Phoenix-Talent School District, Jackson County Library System, extension services, city emergency services and Jackson County Fire District 5. Although the state will backfill lost tax revenue for the schools, District 5 anticipates total losses as great as $10 million — perhaps more.

But we don’t really know, because the city of Talent and TURA have neglected to communicate with our fire district about their proposed new urban renewal plans. The agencies most affected by funding increment shifts provide vital services to all citizens of our community. Jackson County Fire District 5 will not be immune. The loss of any revenue as a result of urban renewal will compel the Fire District to consider a levy to recover lost revenue — or to sharply reduce service levels.

In other words, voters within the 140-square-mile service area will have to make a terrible choice: close another fire station, experience longer response times for fire and medical emergencies, pay more for property insurance and put added pressure on state budgets as Talent leaders implement their proposed plan, or let your voices be heard. Tell the city of Talent and TURA no. Now is not the time for more urban renewal. It’s time for Talent’s leadership to pursue Community Development Block Grants and alternative funding sources.

Make no mistake, a new urban renewal area will degrade fire protection and advanced life support services to our entire service area. Please don’t put our citizens in the position to have to choose between raising taxes or bowing to inadequate fire protection and advanced life support.

Our fire district cares deeply about the communities we protect. The fire danger in our community is no less than it was before the Almeda fire. Can you imagine how much more damage would have been sustained that day with one less fire station and seven fewer crew? That is what keeps us up at night and should infuriate all of our citizens.

Fire District 5’s recovery from the devastating impacts of the Almeda fire has been managed without new taxes. We implore Talent’s city leadership to do the same. Our region has suffered enough without being forced to pay again so that we may maintain emergency services.

Vicki Purslow is chair of the Jackson County Fire District 5 board of directors.