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Talent gets a million for fire recovery

The city of Talent has received more than $1 million in state aid to help with fire recovery, and more grants are being sought.Mail Tribune / file photo

More than $1 million of state Municipal Wildfire Recovery Program aid has been awarded to the city of Talent, and other grants are being sought as the city rebuilds from the Sept. 8 Almeda fire.

Much of the grant money is being spent on people to support operations, such as increased building permit applications brought on by the fire, which destroyed nearly 700 residential units in the city.

“What the state is trying to do is fill in the gaps to make sure (the jurisdictions) have the basic resources to be functional,” said interim City Manager Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

The federal government will cover some, but not all, costs for fire recovery. Some of the money will also be used for long-term resiliency planning.

Grants for recovery have and will continue to cause wide fluctuations in the city’s budget leading to approval of supplemental budgets several times over the next year.

“I’ve never seen a budget year like this when we have so many unknowns about big numbers,” City Finance Director Kurt Sexton said at a Budget Committee meeting May 5. “The coming fiscal year will be full of unknowns. ... We just don’t have really great information to make estimates.”

The city has been awarded $1,143,544 in grant funds for technical assistance and capital equipment specific to wildfire recovery from the state program. Of that, $453,544 will be spent in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

That spending has been directed at 11 initiatives, with much of the money going for additional staff. Areas supported include:

  • The Community Development Department, which hired more personnel to help keep up with the increase in permits as rebuilding moves forward. Money will also be spent on technology and software to move the permit process more online.
  • Hiring of a community outreach coordinator to increase city efforts to connect and communicate with citizens.
  • Enhancing public safety through a $375,000 annual contract with the Ashland Police Department to ensure 24/7 coverage in town. Theft of construction materials has become a concern with the level of building underway.
  • Coordinating with the Talent Urban Renewal Agency on a city visioning project and a feasibility study on a possible new urban renewal district.
  • Coordination of the wildfire recovery efforts with ongoing tasks. Current staff have undertaken some recovery work, taking time away from day-to-day jobs. The Public Works Department, for example, is doing more water testing as a result of the fire.

Applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid for repairs to city infrastructure must include inventories that are verified by the state and the agency. Help has been hired to assist with that process, which is ongoing.

“Part of this (state) grant is working with a consultant to make sure we could ask for all the things we could,” said McLeod-Skinner. “We didn’t have in-house staff that has done that before. There is specific damage that FEMA will pay for repairing, but they won’t pay for staff work and planning.”

Other state grant funds have been requested. These include:

  • Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development mini grants of up to $9,000 per month to provide permit assistance. Talent is looking for help with floodplain management review. Some structures that burned were in the floodplain, and rebuilding requires extra scrutiny. Talent contracts with the city of Medford for that service, but the only person assigned to that work is dealing with a number of requests while homeowners await approval so they can rebuild.
  • Oregon legislators will be awarding funds from the American Rescue Plan allocated to the states. Talent has submitted a proposal for tenant/owner-designed affordable housing that could serve as a model elsewhere.

Unrelated to the fire, American Rescue Plan federal funding passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden to help recovery from the pandemic is anticipated to bring $1,346,934 to the city. Formal notice of an award has not been received, and the funds are not included in next year’s budget.

Property tax revenue for the city is anticipated to drop by an estimated $400,000 in the 2021-22 fiscal year due to destruction of taxable properties by the fire. A million dollars in tax revenue is estimated for FY21-22.

Budget Committee meetings are scheduled for May 19 and May 26. The Talent City Council must approve the budget by June 30. Information on meetings can be found at www.cityoftalent.org.

“The bottom line is, there’s a lot of unknowns. We are just going to have to deal with a lot of uncertainty,” said McLeod-Skinner.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.