District 6 owns one property, looks at buying another
By Ann McCreary
Deliberations about a future new fire station in Winthrop continued this week as Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners looked at financial implications of buying new property for the station.
Commissioners are considering property on White Avenue, next to Little Star Montessori School, as an alternative to property on Horizon Flats Road, which the district purchased in 2009. The White Avenue property was found to be the best potential location among 16 sites evaluated by a fire district advisory committee last year.
But the fire district faces a big barrier in moving forward on buying new property — money. An overview of budget considerations for a new station property, prepared by Fire Chief Cody Acord for the commissioners, concluded that the district’s current budget “has no money available to purchase the White Avenue property outright or for another loan payment.”
At their monthly meeting Monday (Feb. 12), commissioners decided they needed more time to evaluate financial information related to the property and to consider comments from community members who attended the meeting. Commissioners will continue discussion of the fire station property at their next meeting on March 12.
Finding money for another parcel would require selling the 5 acres on Horizon Flats and eliminating something from the budget, like a fire engine replacement, or getting voter approval for a bond or tax levy to finance the purchase, according to Acord’s budget assessment.
The prospect of selling one property and purchasing another for a new fire station is complicated by issues including property values, loans, zoning and Winthrop’s Westernization design code. The process is also complicated by lingering distrust among some district residents who have said they were left out of the district’s planning for a new station in the past.
“There’s no question it is needed,” local resident Duncan Bronson said Monday. “I think in general the community supports a new building.” Bronson recommended the district take several steps “to return confidence” before moving forward on a property transaction or station construction.
Bronson recommended that the district conduct a complete financial analysis of the district by a certified financial planner or accountant, retain a professional engineer to evaluate possible building sites, examine different building materials for a new station, and retain a real estate agent on a fee basis if a property purchase is considered.
Having professional recommendations to back their decisions will help commissioners gain community support, Bronson said.
“We’ll definitely check into all that and we definitely want to get the public involved,” said Jerry Palm, chairman of the three-man commission.
In his overview of budget considerations for a fire station property, Acord said the district purchased the 5-acre Horizon Flats property for $325,000, and has a loan of $380,00 for the property, which includes loan fees and closing costs. The balance owed on the loan is $261,556.
If the district were to sell the property, the sale price would be about $135,000, based on the estimate of a local real estate broker. That price — far lower than the purchase price — is based on information from the Winthrop planner that the town would only consider a zone change to single-family residential rather than commercial, “resulting in the devaluation of the property,” Acord said. That would result in a loss of $200,000 on the sale of the current property.
The 3.25-acre parcel on White Avenue would be priced at about $350,000, based on discussion with the property owner, Acord said. If the district were to purchase that property and sell its current property, the net effect to the district would be at least $550,000.
If the district were to keep the current property and purchase the new property, the net effect would be at least $735,000, according to Acord’s budget assessment.
Acord also noted that fire station construction costs would be impacted by the fact that the White Avenue property is within an area of town that is subject to Winthrop’s Westernization code, which would likely increase building costs to comply with the code requirements.
A complete set of architectural drawings, engineering plans and site plans already exist for the Horizon Flats property, Acord said. Changing the existing station design to be compatible with the White Avenue site would require that those plans be revised, adding at least $50,000 to the project costs.
Palm said the district evaluated both properties previously when searching for a fire station location nine years ago. “I think we came to the conclusion that the property we have [on Horizon Flats] is pretty good. I don’t think it will go very well with the public spending $1 million for a new station,” he said.
Commissioners said the response time to most calls would be shorter by a minute or two from the White Avenue location because of its proximity to Highway 20 and the bridge across the Methow River. However, Commissioner Darold Brandenburg said he was concerned about the property’s location next to Little Star school. “I think that’s an issue. I’m not sold on the piece of property,” he said.
Ken Doran, a resident of the district, suggested that commissioners “broaden your scope about what you are doing valley-wide” before moving forward on a new station. “You’d get better buy-in from the community if you had a broader plan.”
Under former Fire Chief Don Waller, the district developed plans for a 12,000-square-foot station at Horizon Flats that was estimated to cost about $2.4 million and $1.1 million in interest. A tax levy increase to fund the new station was rejected by voters in 2014.
Voters also turned down a $5 million bond levy in 2008 to fund construction of a station proposed for property across from the Winthrop post office. The district lost $15,000 in earnest money it had put down on that property after the town denied the district’s request to rezone the property.
The district has been looking for an alternative to the station it leases on Englar Street in Winthrop. That station has been expanded and modified several times over the past 60 years, but cannot be expanded further. District officials say 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.
The suitability of the Horizon Flats property has been questioned because it is on a hill and accessed by a curving road that can be icy in winter. However, it has space for needed firefighter training facilities that would serve the entire district, district officials said.
The station designed for the Horizon Flats property includes six drive-through bays for fire vehicles, offices and meeting spaces, sleeping and dining areas, and a decontamination room. Some community members criticized the design as too large and costly.
At Monday’s commission meeting, Palm said the district could consider reducing the size of the station and building in phases to bring initial costs down. But, he added, “we looked at those plans over and over again” trying to find ways to reduce the cost. “It’s not just about storing trucks, its about the firefighters and how they can get their job done.”
“We believe what we need for adequate space. But that building is not going to be built,” Brandenberg said.
Acord said the advisory committee did a good job outlining the advantages and disadvantages of the properties it considered. “We’ve got to decide on the property first, then go over our needs assessment,” he said.
Commissioners decided to send Acord to a conference on fire station design that will be held in Texas in May, and will continue discussions of property next month. Acord said the financial analysis he prepared is available by request.