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Residents seek transparency in Urban Renewal program
Roundtable discusses Urban Renewal program, what it does
La Grande residents made it clear Tuesday night they would like to see more transparency from the city on the Urban Renewal program.
About a dozen residents gathered at Cook Memorial Library for a forum on the program.
Hosted by Eddie Garcia, a La Grande City Council candidate, the event was intended to be an educational session to help residents gain a better understanding of the city’s program.
Garcia said since he moved to La Grande last summer many residents have told him they don’t know about the program or what it does.
“It’s very complex, extremely convoluted,” he said.
Garcia said residents have asked why they can’t line up to get funds to fix their own roofs.
“The majority of the taxpayers are saying, ‘Where do I line up?’” he said.
La Grande Mayor Daniel Pokorney said the answer to that is in the program’s name.
“It’s the Urban Renewal program, not the residential renewal program,” he said.
Pokorney and Councilors John Bozarth and Jerry Sebestyen provided meeting attendees with background information on the program. The Urban Renewal District was launched in November 1999 with a plan “to revitalize La Grande’s Central Business Zone” by investing in public improvements through public and private partnerships within the zone and by facilitating the development of commercial and industrial areas to create jobs and income.
Garcia pointed out that a line item for the district appears on property taxes, leading residents to wonder how they can reap some benefits of the fund.
Pokorney said the line item appears on taxes but only those within the district pay taxes into the Urban Renewal fund. The item appears in people’s taxes because of the way the state has set up municipal urban renewal programs.
The group also discussed how the program is funded. Rather than paying tax increases to other tax districts since 2000, those within the 525-acre district pay the increases but they go toward the Urban Renewal program.
Pokorney said the difference to school districts is offset by state funding. Garcia, however, disagreed and said the state doesn’t make up the entire difference.
Residents and councilors also debated the return on investment. Garcia said he would like to see numbers on how the program has increased property values in the district. Councilors pointed to the projects funded by Urban Renewal as evidence of a return on investment and noted that the private sector has invested even more money into the district. Much of this cannot be quantified, Sebestyen said.
Residents said they want more transparency from the city to know who has been funded and whose applications for funding have been denied — and why. Business owner John Fleming said he wasn’t even aware that monies were available for his business inside the Urban Renewal District.
“I shouldn’t have to go to the newspaper, you shouldn’t have to come to my door,” he said, adding that more information should be available on the city’s website.
“We’re asking for more transparency,” said Mike Brasure, who is a candidate for mayor.