By Ann McCreary
Voters who live within the boundaries of Okanogan County Fire District 6 will be asked next month to decide whether they want to pay more in property taxes to finance construction of a new fire station in Winthrop.
Proposition 1 on the Nov. 4 general election ballot asks voters to determine whether to “authorize the District to set its 2015 regular property tax levy rate at $.79 per $1,000 assessed value to finance construction of a new fire station. The newly established dollar limitation would remain in effect for a period of 20 years.”
The district currently levies 61.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. If voters approve the proposition, the district plans to levy an additional 17.5 cents, bringing the total district levy to 79 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The additional tax levy is intended to raise money to finance a new fire station in the Horizon Flats neighborhood of Winthrop, to replace a fire station near downtown Winthrop that the district leases from the town.
The tax revenue would generate $2.4 million for construction costs of the new station, and approximately $1.1 million for interest on general obligation bonds that would be issued by the district to finance the project over a 20-year period, according to information provided by a political action committee formed to promote the levy.
“With financing it adds up to around $3.5 million over 20 years … because there will be interest to pay, just like when you bought your house,” said Alan Fahnestock, a volunteer firefighter and chairman of the committee.
Owners of a $200,000 home within the fire district are currently paying about $123 per year for fire protection. The additional levy of 17.5 cents would add about $35 per year, bringing the total to $158 annually for a $200,000 home.
State law limits increases in tax revenues for individual taxing districts to 1 percent annually. Because the fire district’s proposed new levy would generate more than a one percent increase in revenues, the district needs to get voter approval for a temporary, 20-year levy lid lift to raise taxes to finance the fire hall construction.
The new station would be built on a five-acre parcel purchased by the district in 2010 for $380,000.
Too small, not safe
District 6 officials have said for many years that the 4,400-square-foot station that the district currently leases on Englar Street is too small to safely accommodate firefighting vehicles, equipment and firefighters, and the site does not provide adequate room for expansion.
The district’s firefighters — all volunteers except for five paid staff positions — must change into their gear in tight spaces next to fire trucks, district officials say. When fire trucks are moving out of the station to respond to a fire, that poses a risk to firefighters, district officials say.
They also point out that the Englar facility lacks facilities for firefighters to shower off after returning from fires, and has no space for firefighter training.
“I have worked out of the Winthrop station and it is just a mess. More than one firefighter has gotten an engine door slammed in his face while trying to put his pants on,” Fahnestock said.
“When it comes to things like training with hoses, we have to go to the high school,” and set up in the parking lot, which is problematic because it’s often difficult to schedule training around school activities, he said.
“From my perspective this proposition is for the volunteers,” Fahnestock said. “We’re taking the same training that professional firefighters take. That’s one of the huge arguments for this thing.”
The proposed new station, approximately 12,500 square feet, would be about three times the size of the leased station on Englar Street. The design is about 90 percent complete, said District 6 Chief Don Waller. The district hopes to break ground in April, he said.
The facility would provide paved areas around the building for firefighter training exercises, and six drive-through engine bays with heated concrete floors.
The proposed station would include offices for the district chief, secretary, and four other paid staff members, a receptionist area, a meeting room for 50 people, a conference room, gym, kitchen, dining room, dayroom, two dorm rooms with two beds in each, shower rooms for male and female firefighters, radio and office equipment rooms, a workshop, decontamination room and storage rooms for firefighting equipment.
The fire district levy proposition does not appear to have any organized opposition, but some community members have raised questions about the proposed station.
Fred Wert of Winthrop has gathered information related to the station construction and tax levy proposal, and called the design of the station “over the top.”
“No rural fire department has a hall like that,” Wert said. “The design of this fire hall is similar to those for districts with full-time staff and hundreds of structures to protect. It is not related at all to the design of rural fire districts with primarily volunteers fighting the fires.”
District 6 has already spent a considerable amount purchasing the Horizon Flats property and on design costs “without voter approval,” Wert said.
“If it gets voted down, what are they going to do?” he asked.
The true costs of the project won’t be known until bonds are ready to be issued and the interest rate on repayment is determined, Wert said.
“A higher interest rate would result in higher interest costs and less than $2.4 million in proceeds from the bond sale,” he said.
Waller said the district based cost projections on a 3.8 percent interest rate. He said the district was informed this week by a representative of D.A. Davidson, a financial firm that is advising the district, that the interest rate is expected to hold steady until the end of the year, when the general obligation bonds would be issued.
The potential for interest rates going higher than estimated in the project costs, “is something we haven’t addressed,” Waller said.
Wert said the district has not included some related expenses in its project costs estimates, specifically furnishings and equipment such as gym equipment, backup generators, compressors and light fixtures.
“Not necessarily all furnishings are included … some purchases outside” of the project estimate will be needed, Waller said.
Waller said the size and design of the new station is warranted based on the valuation of property in the Methow Valley.
“Our assessed valuation is a little over $1 billion. The assessed valuation means we have those structures out there [that] we have to protect. Comparatively we’re not a little fire district out here in the woods anymore. We train as a professional organization,” Waller said.
He said some volunteer firefighters would likely have stayed at the station during the huge wildfires this summer if it had been possible. Having volunteers sleeping at the station provides quicker responses, he said.
“A volunteer force doesn’t mean they won’t stay there. It just means they’re not getting paid full-time,” Waller said.
Wert said the levy may also have revenue impacts that have not been adequately explained. He said that the district plans to raise the $2.4 million to build the station through the sale of general obligation bonds, which will be paid off much like a mortgage, with a set annual amount.
However, Wert said, the value of the assessed property will likely increase every year. The state limits increases in the dollar amount generated through the tax levy to 1 percent per year, but as assessed value increases, even that amount would generate “excess revenue not needed to pay the bond,” Wert said.
Although the new fire station would be located within Winthrop town boundaries (the property was annexed into the town after the district purchased it), residents of Winthrop and Twisp will not vote on the levy proposition or pay the additional property tax if it is approved, because the towns are not part of the district.
The two towns previously had municipal fire departments, but disbanded them and in recent years have received fire protection services from District 6 under contract.
Winthrop pays $44,000 annually for fire protection and Twisp has a five-year contract that includes annual increases, reaching $48,620 in 2017.
District 6 covers an area of about 350 square miles stretching from Gold Creek to Lost River. It includes unincorporated areas and the communities of Carlton and Mazama.
The PAC supporting the levy proposition is placing radio ads and mailing postcards to voters, Fahnestock said.
“Most people, including me up until about a year ago, had no clue what we paid for fire,” he said.
The committee raised money through a music event last summer at the Mazama Store, and “people have given 50 bucks here, 20 bucks there,” Fahnestock said. As a special taxing entity, Fire District 6 is prohibited by state law from promoting the levy.
The district has planned two meetings at which the community can ask questions about the levy proposition and tour the Winthrop station. The meetings are scheduled for Saturday (Oct. 18), from 9 – 10 a.m., and Oct. 28, from 7 – 8 p.m.