Commissioners say there will be ‘adjustments’
By Ann McCreary
Valley residents had appreciation, criticism and lots of questions for Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners at a district meeting on Nov. 24.
About 20 people who showed up at the meeting came mainly to discuss the district’s plan to move ahead with construction of a new fire station after voters turned down a property tax increase to fund the project.
Some speakers prefaced their comments with words of praise for district firefighters, before advising the district’s three commissioners to pay more attention to the people they represent and to reconsider plans for the proposed 12,000-square-foot fire hall.
“I think you’ll want to rejuvenate a citizens committee, and especially include a good accountant,” suggested Herb Rosenberg of Twisp.
At a Nov. 8 meeting after voters rejected the district’s tax levy proposal by 54–46 percent, commissioners said they would try to pay for the $2.4 million station with money in the district’s budget. The district proposes issuing general obligation bonds for the project, which would have interest costs estimated at $1.1 million.
“I’m not alone when I say I really appreciate the fire district,” said Ron Perrow of Twisp. But the commissioners’ decision to proceed with the station as planned “appears to be an end-run around what voters said” when they defeated the tax levy proposal in the Nov. 4 general election, he said.
“There’s a public perception that … the scope of the building is too grand,” said Perrow. “You probably would not have proposed the building you did if you had the involvement of the public. It’s a PR problem.”
The district’s decision to try to pay for the new fire station without the additional tax revenues sought in the levy increase raised questions from some people at the meeting.
“You turn around within two weeks and say, ‘We didn’t need to do that [property tax levy], we can do it in-house,’” said Ross Darling of Twisp. “The voters wonder, if you can do it in-house, what were you going to do with the $173,000 you were going to get from the county [in tax revenues]?”
Darling also questioned whether the district would be able to cover operating costs associated with a new fire hall, such as insurance, heat, water and sewer.
“I doubt the $2.4 million will really cover the building turn-key,” he said.
The public discussion focusing on the fire hall proposal followed a budget hearing. Commissioners approved a 2015 budget of $1.1 million, with tax revenues of $665,946 and a projected carryover of $350,00 from 2014.
They also approved moving $50,000 from the anticipated carryover into a new facilities budget line item for the fire station construction. An additional $88,146 was also allocated for the station.
Fire Chief Don Waller said the funds were available because loan payments on a fire truck will end this year, the district budget will increase by 1 percent as allowed under state law, and the district will receive additional tax revenues from new construction.
Confusion about meeting
Commissioners and Waller initially told citizens attending the meeting that only comments directly related to the budget would be accepted, because the meeting was advertised as a
budget hearing. It would be “illegal” to discuss anything else, Waller said.
“In a special meeting you must discuss what you’ve said you would,” said Chairman Roy Reiber, who told attendees they should come back to the next regular meeting on Dec. 8 to discuss the fire station proposal. “We will present ideas as to what we might do on Dec. 8,” he said.
The district secretary, however, had sent an email announcement on Nov. 20 stating that a “special meeting” would be held after the budget hearing. “The topic will be the construction of a new fire hall in Winthrop,” the email said. The email announcement was not mentioned at the meeting.
“You can get a lot of public testimony right now and I suggest you do it,” Perrow told the commissioners. “I don’t know any law that would prevent you from interacting with the public.”
After some discussion about how to proceed, the commissioners adjourned the meeting and then stayed to listen informally to public comments.
Several remarks focused on the location of the proposed fire hall – a 5-acre parcel on Horizon Flats. The district signed a purchase agreement for the land in October 2008, shortly before voters turned down a $5 million bond levy proposed by the district to build a station on property across from the Winthrop post office.
The district lost $15,000 in earnest money it had put down on the property near the post office after the town denied the district’s request to rezone the property to allow the station to be built there.
“You went out and bought the [Horizon Flats] property before you involved the public,” Darling said. “A lot of people think you paid top dollar for that piece. Top dollar.”
The district paid $325,000 in June 2009 for the land.
The district subsequently made a boundary line adjustment with neighboring property owner Jerry Palm, who is also a fire district commissioner, Darling said. “Perfectly legal, but what is the perception?”
Waller said this week that the boundary line adjustment was made “square-foot-for-square-foot” to exchange a portion of the property that was not accessible by the district with land owned by Palm, who recused himself from voting on the issue.
Some speakers expressed concern that the fire station property is located on a hill with one curving access road that could be icy and slippery in winter.
“We plan on straightening out the corner and making it safer,” Palm said.
Ardis Bynum of Winthrop said the property is “quite removed” from Winthrop’s commercial area and fire trucks would have to cross the Methow River bridge and possibly contend with tourist traffic to respond to calls downtown or north of town.
“My feeling is the town itself should be the emphasis,” said Brian Drye of Winthrop. “You should be able to get downtown really quick.”
Waller said locating the station south of Winthrop “is truly not going to affect the town. There are two commercial districts in Winthrop, the old town and the south side” where the grocery store is located, he said. About 70 percent of calls for the Winthrop station are south of the town, Waller said.
Reiber said the district searched extensively for suitable property around Winthrop on which to construct a station to replace the current station on Englar Street, which is leased from the town.
“We found properties that would be more desirable, but they were too expensive” or were not zoned for a fire station. “It’s the best site we could come up with money for.”
The fire district has been proposing to build a new station for many years. The Englar Street station has been expanded and modified several times over the past 60 years, but cannot be expanded further, according to district officials.
The station is so cramped that it poses a safety risk to firefighters who must prepare for fire calls in tight spaces between fire trucks, district officials say. The fire station has no decontamination facilities for firefighter use after fires, and lacks adequate space for training, equipment storage, parking, and vehicle maintenance, officials say.
Citizens at last week’s meeting questioned the size and design of the proposed 12,000-foot fire hall, called a “Taj Mahal” by one attendee.
“I’ve asked … about looking at alternatives, but we keep coming up with $3 million fire halls that are more than what people want,” said Mike Port of Twisp.
Duncan Bronson of Winthrop questioned the need for individual offices for six paid staff positions – the fire chief, one assistant, three division chiefs and a part-time secretary. He asked if the district has looked into other options like buying the Winthrop station and adjoining properties to expand at that location.
“There’s just not enough land” there, Palm said.
Other fire districts in the county “don’t have anything nearly like this” proposed station, Darling said. “How are they able to do what they do with a budget that is one-tenth of ours?”
“They don’t have that much to protect,” Reiber said. “We have 22 pieces of apparatus and 153 square miles,” added Commissioner Darold Brandenberg.
“There’s a lot of admiration for what you’ve done, especially last [fire] season,” said Chrystal Perrow of Twisp. “People were feeling like you were doing this too fast” and didn’t understand the fire district’s proposal, she said.
“I think we were very informed,” said Port. “I think we’re just questioning what happened here.”
“It’s hard to get volunteers when you feel people don’t support you,” said Brian Colin, Carlton station captain. “I spent hundreds of hours fighting fires this summer,” he said. The new station is needed in part to provide “a central training spot” for firefighters, he said.
“There is a dialog that started tonight that maybe should have started a long time ago,” said Denise Tompetrini of Twisp. “Is this an all-or-nothing proposition? All I hear is Plan A.”
“There’s going to have to be a plan A, B and C,” Reiber responded. “We’re prepared to make some adjustments. We’ll try to have some ideas for the Dec. 8 meeting.”
The district meets at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month in the Twisp Fire Station on Second Avenue.