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Commissioners blast Talent urban renewal plan

Talent City Council will hold a public hearing about a proposed urban renewal plan Wednesday at the Talent Community Center. [Mail Tribune/file photo]
City of Phoenix, Fire District No. 5 also oppose plan

Talent City Council is attempting to take advantage of the devastating Almeda Fire with a proposed urban renewal plan that doesn’t take into account negative impacts, according to Jackson County commissioners.

Commissioners this week sent a letter to the city of Talent objecting to the plan. City councilors will review input they’ve received during a special meeting Tuesday to keep, change or reject recommendations.

Talent City Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday on the plan. The council is scheduled to decide whether to adopt the plan during a meeting Aug. 24.

The commissioners’ letter states the proposed urban renewal plan is “merely an attempt to take advantage of the largest tragedy ever to impact our county by the city of Talent at the expense of, and without any thought toward, the other entities and people also impacted by the Almeda Fire.”

The September 2020 Almeda Fire destroyed about 2,300 homes and hundreds of commercial buildings, according to the city of Phoenix, which also sent a letter opposing the urban renewal plan.

The plan would “freeze” property tax revenue for taxing jurisdictions as of January 2021, when vast swaths of Talent and Phoenix were still burned to the ground. As the areas rebuild, the regrowth of property tax revenue plus increases would flow into Talent urban renewal coffers rather than to other taxing entities such as Jackson County.

Urban renewal generally is used for blighted, decayed areas that impair economic values and tax revenues. The blight can lead to crime and dangers to public health, creating a public interest in rehabilitating and redeveloping an area.

During the 30-year life of the proposed plan, the city of Talent itself would lose $17 million in property tax revenue, and Jackson County Fire District No. 5 would lose $17 million. Jackson County would lose a lesser amount, as would other jurisdictions, such as Jackson County Library Services and Rogue Valley Transportation District.

For 30 years, the tax districts would only receive property tax revenues that would be similar to if the devalued burned areas were never rebuilt.

“The proposed plan would have the effect of ‘locking in’ these revenue losses to the various public entities,” the commissioners said in their letter.

The city of Talent already is under financial strain and having trouble providing basic services, even without the diversion of tax revenue to urban renewal projects, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

“The primary purpose of local government is to protect the public health and safety of their citizens — and they’re compromising that in their city. With their city budget, they already don’t have the ability to provide adequate police services,” Jordan said during meetings with commissioners earlier this week.

Talent is considering merging police services with the city of Ashland to save money.

Diverting money to urban renewal could impact the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and especially Talent Police Department, leading to more calls for help from Phoenix Police Department, Oregon State Police and the sheriff’s office, the city of Phoenix said.

Urban renewal’s diversion of funds would cause Fire District No. 5 to either cut fire protection services or seek increased taxes or fees to cover shortfalls, according to the district.

The fire district serves Talent, Phoenix and rural areas outside of Ashland and Medford.

Over the life of the urban renewal plan, $75 million in property tax money would be diverted from other services into Talent urban renewal projects, according to the fire district.

County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said Talent City Council shouldn’t adopt the plan, especially with the area already rebuilding.

“The decision would create a devastating financial crisis of its own,” she said.

The Phoenix-Talent School District would see the largest loss at $22 million, but that money would be backfilled by the state, according to a list of impacts listed by Fire District 5.

The state equalizes funding for school districts. With money diverted to Talent urban renewal, every school district across the state would receive less money, according to the county commissioners’ letter.

Commissioners said with robust rebuilding already occurring in Talent and more outside financial help on the way, urban renewal projects aren’t needed.

Recent estimates show the vast majority of the town will be rebuilt by 2024 without urban renewal. For people and properties not on track to be rebuilt, the Rogue Valley is set to receive $200 million in federal grants for new housing, plus business and public improvements, commissioners said.

Commissioners and the city of Phoenix said many of the proposed goals for Talent urban renewal will be taken care of through other funding sources and by other agencies.

Goals include building more affordable housing; recruiting businesses; reducing hazards; improving transportation and infrastructure, including walking and biking paths; engaging the community through the arts and other projects; and covering the administrative costs of running an urban renewal program.

Groups such as Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development already work on business retention and recruitment for the Rogue Valley. Oregon Department of Transportation is working on a Highway 99 corridor improvement project that includes Talent, and Jackson County is leading efforts to plan for the future of the Bear Creek Greenway, Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said.

“There are other organizations already doing all these things,” Dotterrer said.

He questioned whether Talent’s small city staff could handle the workload from major urban renewal projects when the city already is struggling to provide basic services.

Talent City Manager Jordan Rooklyn has raised concerns about the harm to city services and staff if money is diverted to urban renewal.

The board of directors of Jackson County Library Services, which operates 15 library branches throughout the county, said the Talent location is one of the busiest branches. The board said in a letter that an urban renewal district would decrease the library’s operating budget while demanding increased services to serve a growing population.

If Talent City Council does adopt an urban renewal plan, JCLS asked that money be included for the Talent library building and services.

The JCLS board said the urban renewal district has the potential to speed recovery and increase the value of burned land to higher than it was before the Almeda Fire, especially for the business corridor.

But board members said they had concerns about the extent of residential property included in the proposed urban renewal district’s boundaries, especially since many areas are rebuilding with the help of state and federal grants.

The city of Phoenix said Talent’s urban renewal district would hurt the various entities that stepped up to provide help in the aftermath of the fire, from Jackson County government to the transportation district to Rogue Valley Sewer Service.

The partnerships allowed for a very complex cleanup to proceed in a relatively short time frame, helped fire survivors and laid the groundwork for the partners to win state and federal funding for recovery, the city of Phoenix said.

For information on attending Tuesday’s special meeting to review recommendations about the plan online or by phone, see cityoftalent.org/Agendas.asp?AMID=1196.

For information on attending the public hearing about the plan at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday in person, online or by phone, see cityoftalent.org/Agendas.asp?AMID=1181. City councilors will attend online, but an in-person viewing room will be set up at Talent’s Community Center, located at 104 E. Main St. behind Talent City Hall. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

For information on attending the 5:30 p.m. meeting Wednesday, Aug. 24, for the council’s decision on the plan, see cityoftalent.org/Agendas.asp?AMID=1197. The meeting can be accessed online or by phone.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.