By Ann McCreary

A proposed tax levy increase of 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value would raise an estimated $3.8 million over the next 20 years to fund a new fire station for Okanogan County Fire District 6.

Approximately $2.4 million of that tax revenue would be needed for construction costs for the proposed new 12,842-square-foot station, and $1.4 million would pay interest on general obligation bonds issued by the district to pay for the building, district officials explained Monday (June 9) at a commission meeting.

The district invited the public to the meeting to learn about the levy proposal. A few citizens asked questions about the proposed levy increase, and some people spoke about the need for a larger station to replace the Englar Street facility that the district leases from the town of Winthrop.

District commissioners said they expect to vote at their July 14 meeting on placing a resolution on the November general election ballot asking voters in the district to approve a 20-year levy increase.

The district includes residents in the unincorporated areas and communities from Gold Creek to Mazama, with the exception of the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. The valley’s two largest communities receive fire protection from District 6 under contract, but are not part of the district and residents would not vote on or pay the increased tax levy.

Winthrop resident Brian Drye asked for clarification on the total amount of revenue to be generated through the 17-cent levy increase.

“The rate request reflects $3.8 million,” said Chief Don Waller.

Mike Port of Twisp noted that the district’s current levy of 61 cents per $1,000 assessed value generates $645,000 annually, while the county’s other 15 fire districts combined receive about $883,000.

Commission Chairman Roy Reiber responded that the assessed valuation in the Methow Valley is higher than elsewhere in the county.

The levy increase would mean a tax increase of about $34 per year for the owner of a $200,000 home.

In 2008, the district asked voters to approve a $5 million bond measure for a new fire station, but voters turned it down.

That amount included not only construction costs for a new station but also land acquisition costs and other station improvements, Reiber said in an interview after the meeting.

The district has already purchased five acres of land on Horizon Flats in Winthrop for $380,000 for the new station, so those expenses are not included in the proposed tax levy increase, Reiber said.

Architect George Watson, of Watson & Herres in Spokane, drew up plans for the new fire hall. He said the cement block building would be low-maintenance and, among other features, would include six drive-through vehicle bays for fast response, a meeting room that seats 50 people, and an office for the fire chief.  

People attending the meeting at the Winthrop station were guided into the building through a side door into the engine bays, where they ducked under overhead equipment and squeezed through narrow passages between the fire vehicles.

A larger facility is needed because the cramped Englar Street station means volunteers are changing into gear with less than 12 inches between them and “a moving 50,000-pound fire engine,” according to a recent district press release.

District officials said the safety concerns have made it difficult to attract and retain volunteers.

Winthrop resident Ken Westman, a former fire commissioner, said he supported increasing taxes to fund a new facility.

“I believe that these guys [firefighters] are amazing people. If we can give them a facility we can be proud of we could attract more volunteers, because we’re running short,” Westman said.