I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Methow Valley who would have anything other than good things to say about the firefighters of Okanogan County Fire District 6, most of whom are volunteers. We know how hard they train, how professionally they respond to fires and other emergencies, how they face unknown dangers every time they leave whatever fire station they are posted to. We may even have some sense of what they give up in their personal lives to help make this community a safer place. They are friends, neighbors and admirable public servants.
Because we appreciate the firefighters, we appreciate their needs. The property tax levy increase proposed by District 6, which is on the Nov. 4 general election ballot, is intended to address what the district says are some dire needs — notably, replacing the fire station in Winthrop with a new one in the Horizon Flats area.
There is clearly a lot of positive energy behind the levy proposal. Yet, in talking to people, reading letters to the editor and trying to sense the tenor of the community toward Proposition 1, it seems to me that many residents are conflicted by the notion of considering the proposed new fire hall — whose value some people question — separately from the firefighters, whose value nobody questions. Some folks talk about “the district” in a distinctly non-personified way, with much less trust and affection than they talk about the firefighters.
So you have to wonder, why is that — why are people ready to support the firefighters, but not necessarily “the district?”
Many backers of the levy proposal would argue that you support the firefighters by supporting the district, and that means providing the facilities they need. Agreeing to pay more in local property taxes would be a gesture of faith and confidence in District 6’s intentions, they suggest.
Other residents continue to raise concerns about the scale, location, cost, practicality and necessity of a new fire hall in Winthrop. Some questions clearly linger from the district’s efforts several years ago to win voter approval of a bond issue for a new station. That effort failed, and a lack of information was cited by some observers as one reason for voter reluctance. Others were likely put off by the higher price tag.
A while back, when District 6’s leaders began to talk about reviving the new fire hall idea, I suggested that they needed to be more forthcoming, and less defensive, about the details of any proposal.
I think they’ve done a much better job of that, and have made an effort to reach out to the community with a consistent message. Lots of information is available.
Will that be enough? Rural voters will have the say. It won’t be up to the residents of Twisp and Winthrop to help decide; they are not included in the election because each town contracts separately with District 6 for fire protection. It’s probable that the events of last summer will have an impact on how rural voters view the district’s request. They were the ones most affected by the fires, and observed first-hand the firefighters’ efforts.
Upgrades and improvements are necessary in any public safety organization. We don’t have horse-drawn water wagons housed in wooden sheds any more. Firefighting is a highly refined job with more demands. Safety and protection will always come at a cost. In this election the cost is not a mystery: property taxes would go up by 17.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. Voters will decide if they believe the pay-off for that increase is worth it.
The ballots are in the mail. There’s still time before Election Day to learn about the district’s proposal and perhaps raise your own questions. There are quite a few firefighters out there who would be happy to answer them as best they can. Don’t make up your mind until you have enough information to satisfy your own decision-making process.