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Talent looks to hire recovery, resiliency help

Environmental Protection Agency workers remove hazardous materials Oct. 22, 2020, from a Talent, Ore., neighborhood that was destroyed in the Almeda Fire. (AP Photo / Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)

Almeda fire rebuild efforts in Talent are expected to get a boost when a new fire recovery and resilience director position is filled.

A selection has been made, but the candidate and officials are working out contract details to ensure that the work won’t duplicate efforts already underway by the city.

Jon Legarza, whose Healthy Sustainable Communities firm was selected, told Talent City Council during a special meeting in late December that his efforts will include making information needed to rebuild more accessible to the public, surveying property owners who are not rebuilding, surveying business owners, staying connected with partners who have helped in rebuilding, and developing a plan for a municipal housing authority.

Councilors passed a motion directing City Manager Jordan Rooklyn, Rogue Valley Council of Government’s Jodi Wilson and a subcommittee to draft a contract. Wilson is working for the city on filling the position. Rooklyn said she expects a contract to be presented to the council Jan. 19.

The city was awarded money from the state’s Municipal Wildfire Assistance Program to fund the position. RVCOG developed the proposal. Seven applications were received, with three determined to meet the qualifications, but two subsequently withdrew.

Legarza’s firm was determined to be qualified for the position by the council earlier. Legarza is no stranger to city operations. He was named Talent Urban Renewal Agency executive director in April 2020. After the September 2020 Almeda fire, Legarza’s firm was contracted to provide services to help with the recovery effort. Legarza served as interim city manager in July 2021 before Rooklyn became the permanent manager.

“Jon is a known entity to this group. There is satisfaction with the high quality of the work he does,” said Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood. Legarza led the effort that brought 53 trailers for residents displaced by the fire to the urban renewal Gateway site, where infrastructure was developed.

Talent was also successful in getting another state wildlife recovery grant that brings the ArcGIS Urban software to the city, which is valued at $40,000. That software will be used to create the outward-facing dashboard that will allow quick access to information needed for rebuilding. It also provides visual images of what rebuilt structures will look like. Portland is the only other city in the state with the system.

“(The city) really doesn’t have anyone to run it. We’ll come in to help build it out. We have to think we are in the 21st century. Nobody is going to read long, in-depth housing reports,” Legarza said. The tool represents the long-range master plan that details the delivery of new housing in Talent, he told the council, when questioned about plan development.

Using the dashboard, people considering returning to Talent will be able to determine when, for example, water and sewer services might be brought to a property or what is the status of rebuilding manufactured home parks, with information on when they might be occupied and when trailers might be available from manufacturers, said Legarza.

The city has already contracted with an RVCOG specialist to help prepare the dashboard for the permitting process, Rooklyn said. City staff has already undertaken outreach to business owners, and the Planning Department is engaging with those rebuilding homes and businesses, she said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved more than $422 million for Oregon in supplemental disaster assistance for housing recovery. The allocation for Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery and mitigation work, a first for Oregon, will address long-term unmet recovery needs from the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. Legarza’s work would position the city to apply for that assistance.

“Our firm wants to get out there … and survey so we have the metrics so we can bring that data and knowledge the (selection) committee needs,” said Legarza. “It’s kind of like you have one chance to go after this.”

The city has set a maximum of $150,000 for the work, with $100,000 budgeted for the current fiscal year.

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