Astoria spreads urban renewal wealth

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Apr. 16—Local governments can budget for an additional $803,000 in funding after Astoria opted to stop collecting taxes for the Astor West Urban Renewal District.

The property tax money will instead flow back to local governments, including around $407,000 that Astoria plans to spend on several full-time positions to help with planning, emergency preparedness and community policing.

The City Council, in its role as the Astoria Development Commission, created the Astor West Urban Renewal District in 2002 to fund improvement projects from the Astoria Bridge to Smith Point. The fund has collected a maximum indebtedness — the amount that can be spent on projects — of $9.1 million. It is projected to have $5.3 million left for future projects.

Without the urban renewal collections, the State School Fund is in line for another $246,000 in funding next fiscal year, Clatsop County another $76,000 and Clatsop Community College more than $39,000.

City Manager Brett Estes recommended not increasing the maximum indebtedness and instead using the money to hire several new positions to help turn the City Council’s two-year policy goals into action.

A new urban planner would help with code amendments amid a deluge of development activity. A new joint fire marshal and emergency manager would help enact a more proactive approach to fire safety and disaster preparedness. And a part-time police position would help with a community policing presence to address quality-of-life issues.

Mayor Bruce Jones called the situation a “win-win,” with $5.3 million left over in the urban renewal fund to help improve Uniontown. He singled out the help for community development with City Planner Barbara Fryer out on leave but working part time.

“We know how far behind staff is on work in that department because of the lack of manpower,” Jones said. “And we’ve all identified resilience — and specifically resilience for disaster preparedness in earthquakes (from) the Cascadia Subduction Zone — as a huge gap.”

Having a position in the Astoria Fire Department to focus on emergency preparedness would benefit the entire community and take resiliency beyond just planning, the mayor said.

City Councilor Joan Herman, Councilor Tom Brownson and Councilor Roger Rocka had been supportive of increasing the urban renewal funding. Herman said she was convinced by city staff’s arguments for the new positions.

The remaining $5.3 million in the urban renewal fund will likely be used in partnership with the state to complete the Uniontown Reborn master plan, including a lane reconfiguration along Marine Drive and other streetscape improvements, along with funding for facade improvement grants.

The most likely need for more money in the urban renewal district was the revitalization of the Port of Astoria’s West Mooring Basin, identified as a prime location for a redeveloped commercial district. Urban renewal funds helped pay for a master plan of the area due in the fall.

The city and other taxing districts will also receive a pot of money from amounts collected over the maximum indebtedness this year. The amount and timing are unclear. Estes recommended putting the city’s share into a fund for work within a certain area or on a certain project identified by the City Council.

“If these were city of Astoria funds, they could potentially have more flexibility on what they could be used for,” he said.

Rocka, who represents part of the west side, said he supports putting the city’s share into a fund ready to throw at a project the city identifies in the future.

“What I have in mind as much as the last time is the Port,” he said. “I think the Port is at a point of flux. They have a chance to be greatly successful, which would benefit all of us. And it would be nice if the city was in a position to jump in and help.”

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