Split vote over whether to delay for citizen input
By Ann McCreary
Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners, on a divided vote, decided Monday (Dec. 8) to proceed with preparing a bid package for construction of a proposed new fire station for the district.
At their regular meeting, the District 6 commissioners also accepted an offer from a local resident, who has a background in business and finance, to analyze the district’s plans to finance the station in Winthrop.
After a brief review of proposals from Fire Chief Don Waller outlining how the district could repay debt incurred in building a new station, commission Chairman Roy Reiber made a motion to move ahead with developing bids for construction of the station.
The financing proposals for a new station significantly reduce money in the district budget to purchase new fire engines, noted Commissioner Jerry Palm.
“It puts us out for new trucks for 20 years,” Palm said.
Reiber said paying for new trucks “might be something the community might be receptive to” in the future.
Several citizens attending the District 6 meeting Monday said they supported the concept of a new fire hall to replace the cramped fire station in Winthrop. But they urged the three commissioners to delay action and create a citizen advisory group to review the fire hall proposal and to improve strained relations with the community.
“I don’t have any quarrel with the idea of replacing the current fire hall. The scope of the replacement is what bothers me,” said Ron Perrow of Twisp.
“I urge you to have a committee of taxpayers, not necessarily firefighters,” Perrow said. “That’s the only way this is going to get done. Without having community support it’s going to be very difficult.”
Perrow noted that the community “didn’t support a $2.4 million
[proposal] in the last levy” election, referring to voters’ defeat of the district’s levy increase proposal on the November ballot, which failed by 54-46 percent.
Commissioners decided last month to try to finance the station without the additional tax revenues the district sought in the election.
Commissioner Jerry Palm said he supported the idea of designating an advisory committee to participate in planning the new station construction.
“I think we’re going to get this done faster if we have the community’s support,” said Palm. “We need people to understand what we need.”
Reiber, however, showed no interest in delaying action, saying the commissioners needed bids to provide a clear cost for the project. “We’ve been working on this for a long time. I think we need to push ahead.”
Pleas for action
Commissioners heard about an hour of comment at the meeting from citizens as well as numerous firefighters. Several firefighters made impassioned pleas in favor of a new fire station, citing safety hazards due to crowding and inadequate facilities at the Winthrop station.
“Here we are, after more than seven years, still debating what the district station should include and how much it should cost. The good news is we are not debating the need to resolve the safety issues that exist at the current Winthrop station,” said John Owen, a volunteer firefighter and captain of the Winthrop station.
Over the years the district has met with consultants, held public meetings and explored alternatives for a new station, he said. “You have twice asked the voters for additional money to build the facility and twice they have said no more money,” Owen said.
As president of the Winthrop Firefighters Association, which has 21 members, Owen urged “that you get on with it and find a way to build the station, now … for the safety, health and well-being of the firefighters.”
“Right now we’ve got seven years in, and everybody’s frustrated,” said John Lomison of Twisp. “The perception you gave to the community is ‘your vote doesn’t count. We’re going to do what we want.’”
Community members, Lomison told the commissioners, “are not upset with the firefighters, they’re upset with the approach you took. They’re upset with you guys. We’re not trying to stop the fire hall from being built. The goal is to provide this fire hall for the safety of staff and volunteers.”
Commissioner Darold Brandenburg asked community members what role a citizen advisory committee would play. Perrow said the group could evaluate plans and provide feedback. “I would not be surprised if it were modified substantially,” he said.
The proposed 12,000-square-foot-building would have six drive-through engine bays with heated concrete floors, offices for six 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 district has said it would finance the $2.4 million construction project through general obligation bonds, with interest estimated at $1.1 million. The station would be built on a 5-acre parcel on Horizon Flats purchased by the district for $325,000 in 2009.
The proposed facility has been described by some community members as too large and extravagant, but commissioners have defended the need for all the features included in the design.
Alan Fahnestock, who headed a political action committee that supported the tax levy proposition, suggested the district hold more informational meetings to explain the station proposal to the public.
“Go through it piece by piece, if they [the citizens] are willing to show up,” Fahnestock said.
Perrow asked commissioners if they’d consider modifications to their proposal. “We think we have a good design,” Reiber responded. “We need an opportunity to tell people.”
Reiber called for a vote on moving ahead to prepare bid documents, and was supported by Brandenburg, with Palm opposing. “I want to know if we’re going to see a committee first” before approving the motion, Palm said.
Commissioners took no action on establishing an advisory committee or on setting dates for informational meetings.
They did, however, accept an offer from Charles Ryan of Winthrop to review the district’s plans for financing the construction project. Ryan has a background in banking, business management and as a financial consultant.
Waller provided commissioners an outline of different scenarios for repaying the debt incurred for the station with anticipated revenues from property taxes and contracts with Twisp and Winthrop.
The scenarios were based on cost estimates of $2.4 million and $2.2 million, and included options for paying interest only for the first four years. Annual payments ranged from $85,000 annually to $205,000 depending on the repayment options.
The district is currently paying off debt on two fire engines, one of which will be repaid in 2015, and the other in 2018.
Waller said money in the budget that would have been used to purchase vehicles would “shift … from vehicles into the station.”
Depending on the funding option, the district could not afford any vehicles “until 2019 and replacing fewer than we should be. We need to take care of the immediate problem we have now,” Waller said.
Waller also identified $142,000 in possible construction cost savings by cutting a generator, storage tank, fencing and landscaping.
At the meeting, Ryan offered to analyze the district’s debt capacity and explore financing alternatives. “I could do an analysis and give it to the board and they could present it to the public,” he said.
“Consider yourself invited,” Reiber said.
In an interview after the meeting Ryan said he proposed to meet with Waller next week and would try to develop an analysis before the next meeting.
“Basically I’ll provide them a second opinion on the ability to finance whatever amount, to be determined … [and] to ask questions I’m not sure they’re asking,” Ryan said.
“By trying to squeeze the station from the current revenue without the [additional] taxes, what are we foregoing?” Ryan asked. “They told us a month ago ‘we have to have this extra money for a fire hall’ but now they say ‘we don’t.’”
Ryan said he would examine, among other things, whether the district’s projected revenue will likely keep up with the pace of expense increase, and whether the financing proposal takes into consideration variable expenses like increased utility costs for a larger station or costs related to fighting the occasional large incident such as this year’s Carlton Complex Fire.
Waller said the architect for the fire hall, Watson & Herres in Spokane, expects it to take at least a month to put together bid specifications for the station construction.