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Proposed Talent taxing district would divert revenue to rebuild after Almeda Fire

Three men walk through a grass field as the Almeda Fire burns in the distance on Sept. 9, 2020.
April Ehrlich
Three men walk through a grass field as the Almeda Fire burns in the distance on Sept. 9, 2020.

A new proposed taxing district in Talent is generating lots of resident interest. The plan, known as the Talent Urban Renewal District, is meant to be a way for the city to rebuild after the 2020 Almeda Fire. But critics say funds are being diverted from important local resources like the fire district.

The new urban renewal district is expected to generate $38 million in revenue over the next 30 years. The money would be used for affordable housing, economic development, transportation, and sustainability efforts, like disaster preparedness.

If the plan is approved by the city council, the assessed value of properties in the 212-acre district would be frozen, with a starting date of January 2021. That money would continue to go to all the usual agencies. Then, as property values within the new district increase, the additional tax money would go to the urban renewal agency for things like affordable housing. The Almeda Fire burned more than 2,300 dwellings in the communities of Talent and Phoenix, and the district includes the burn scar from the fire.

"At some point, you have to recognize that the long-term recovery, a full recovery of your community, is going to have to happen within your community. And this is just one tool," said Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood, who is a member of the Talent Urban Renewal Association along with the Talent City Council.

Services that have taxing increments from within the proposed district, like the city of Talent and the Rogue Valley Transportation District, would forgo some tax revenue they would have received otherwise.

For example, the Jackson County Fire District No. 5 would lose nearly $17 million in revenue over the next 30 years. However, Ayers-Flood said that this number is out of a $355 million budget. The fire district's budget, she said, would still grow every year and triple over the next 30 years. The fire district would initially forgo half a percent of its current budget; by the end of the 30 years, it would forgo 4.5% of its budget.

"It just reallocates a small portion of each jurisdiction to the recovery so that we can rebuild in that area," Ayers-Flood said.

She said there is "a pretty robust misinformation campaign" in Talent about the urban renewal district.

A message requesting comment from Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Fire Chief Charles Hanley was not returned.

A poster on the fire district's website claims that if the proposed plan is passed, "The effectiveness and efficiency of the fire district serving Talent, Phoenix, Rural Ashland and Medford and Interstate 5 will be significantly degraded."

Ayers-Flood noted that the urban renewal district is only five percent of the fire district's coverage area. The proposed district, however, encompasses 25% of the City of Talent, which would be significantly more affected by the tax reallocation.

"The council was being very conscientious of finding the option that is going to provide for the urban renewal agency and maintain services," Ayers-Flood said.

The details of the housing and development projects would be developed over time. "Recovery happens at the speed of funding," Ayers-Flood said, so specific projects will be undertaken as the revenue is raised to fund them.

At the end of the 30-year period, the urban renewal district would end, and all entities would continue receiving their usual share of property taxes. The proposed plan would not raise taxes on residents.

"We learned a great deal from [the Almeda Fire] in how fires behave," Ayers-Flood said. "And we can continue to invest the same way we do and continue to behave the same way we do. [...] Or, we can look at this differently and take some of the resources and invest differently, manage our natural resources differently."

Talent's last urban renewal district expired in 2019.

The Council will discuss the proposed district at its meeting on Wednesday, August 3, with a public hearing scheduled for August 17. A final decision about the district is expected this month.

Jane Vaughan began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media. Jane earned her Master's in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.