Race focuses on proposed Winthrop fire hall
One of the most closely watched races in the Methow Valley this election season is between Darold Brandenburg and Ken Doran for a seat on the Okanogan County Fire District 6 board of commissioners.
Brandenburg, 56, has been on the board for 13 years and seeks his third full six-year term. Doran, 46, is a career firefighter who would bring both local and big-city experience to the rural district.
On a broad level, the race is a referendum on how well the fire district is running. A vote for Brandenburg implies that no course corrections are needed.
“The fire district is not in disrepair,” Brandenburg said. “It’s running as good as it ever has.”
The district has as many volunteers as ever, if not more, Brandenburg said. With a paid staff of five, the district relies on its 40-plus volunteers to respond to emergencies.
“Our response, our equipment — everything about our fire district is good,” Brandenburg said.
On the other hand, Doran said he’s learned a lot about how to run a fire department during his 22 years as a firefighter for the city of Bothell. Doran currently lives just outside of Twisp and commutes once a week to Bothell for two-day shifts.
“I’ve been hoping to see some changes and hoping to see some improvements over a lot of years, and I’m really not seeing them here,” said Doran, who volunteered off and on with the fire district and the now-defunct Twisp Fire Department from 1993 to 2012.
More narrowly, this election could foreshadow the outcome of a levy expected to go on the ballot next year. This property-tax measure would fund construction of a new fire hall in Winthrop, currently estimated to cost $3.85 million.
This will be the district’s third time asking voters to approve a property tax that would pay for a new Winthrop fire station. A $5 million bond measure failed in 2008, and a $2.4 million levy also failed, in 2014.
In campaign statements, Brandenburg has expressed both bafflement that the past levy measures failed and a conviction that a third try would pass.
“I truly don’t even understand why things have gone the way they have gone over the past few years, over building a fire station,” Brandenburg said at a meet-and-greet with voters, Thursday (Sept. 19) at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery Taproom in Twisp.
“I don’t understand why 100% of the people aren’t supporting the people who support them in every way,” Brandenburg added, referring to the volunteers.
In an interview, Brandenburg said public sentiment over the levy has turned to the fire district’s favor.
“The public support is there. It’s in massive quantities,” he said. “Not just myself, but all us commissioners have spent a lot of time trying to get information out there, so people would understand the need for a fire station.”
For his part, Doran said he is discouraged that the latest plan for a fire station is essentially unchanged from the proposal that failed in 2014.
In a flyer mailed to voters earlier this month, Doran implied the $325,000 commissioners paid in 2009 for a new fire station site on Horizon Flats Road was too much, saying it was “well over present market value.” In an interview, Doran said commissioners have ignored members of the public who say the property is unsuitable for a fire station and the building’s price tag also is too high.
“If size is a problem or location, let’s find something the public will support,” Doran said.
Voters living within the Town of Winthrop will be able to vote in this race, as Winthrop joined Fire District 6 in 2018. Residents of Twisp, however, will not cast a ballot for the fire district seat because the town is not part of the district.
Twisp has been contracting with the district for fire protection since disbanding its own fire department in 2012. The contract will cost the town $53,700 in 2020 and expires at the end of that year.
Both Brandenburg and Doran said incorporating Twisp into the fire district would be among their priorities. Brandenburg was directly involved in negotiations with Winthrop that led that town to annex into the district. As a result, property owners in Winthrop pay the district 65 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value.
“The annexation [of Twisp] is something we have not stopped working on,” Brandenburg said. “I’m going to keep following through with it. I’m going to predict the town of Twisp will be annexed in the next couple years.”
Doran cited ongoing tensions between officials at Twisp and the fire district, saying he was less optimistic about current leadership finding a path to annexation.
“The leadership at both the entities aren’t going to find a way to bridge the gaps in the near future,” Doran said.
Doran, who was the last person to serve as Twisp’s fire chief, said he is in a good position to help make annexation happen. He said he has good relationships both with the sitting mayor and council, and with those who seek to replace them in this year’s elections.
Both candidates also are enthusiastic about a $1.8 million grant to the fire district, recently announced by the Bruno & Evelyne Betti Foundation. The money would be used to outfit the new Winthrop fire station and an outdoor training facility on the same property.
The grant would only be awarded if a bond or levy to pay for construction of the fire station passes.
Brandenburg credits district volunteers who spent three years hammering out the successful grant application.
“When you have volunteers writing multi-million-dollar grants, that’s just pure goodness,” he said.
Doran sees a lot of potential in the grant, too, but doesn’t like how it’s tied to successful passage of the levy.
“I’m concerned about a sense of coerciveness that comes with that grant,” Doran said. He said he could work with the grant’s trustees to make it suitable to a new building proposal.
Not there yet?
The current board of commissioners plans to build a fire station to serve the district’s needs over the next 50 years. Doran, who works for a westside fire department that goes on 7,000 calls a year, said he doesn’t think taxpayers are ready to build a fire station that includes round-the-clock amenities for firefighters. Fire District 6 responded to 311 calls in 2018.
“I believe there comes a point where a fire department is big enough … and has the fire loss numbers where the public says, ‘We’re going to spend the tax money needed to maybe have full-time guys ready at a moment’s notice at this station,’” Doran said.
“With our number of calls and fire loss numbers, I don’t think we’re there yet.”
“If I get elected in, I think that means people want a fresh approach” to a new fire station, Doran said. “I will work to find the solutions that I think the people will support.”
Any conversation with Brandenburg about the new fire hall is likely to land on the topic of loyalty.
“I’ve watched the community pitch in to help people like myself and my own family over time, and I’ve just always respected those people,” said Brandenburg, who has owned and operated his own construction company in the valley for more than 30 years.
“And I feel in my own heart that I need to give back, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he added.
In his role on the Fire District 6 board of commissioners, Brandenburg wants to expand that spirit of giving that has buoyed him and his family.
“One of my goals is to create an atmosphere for the community and the fire district and all firefighters, to be encouraged and want to help build a larger volunteer program with more firefighters than we’ve ever had,” he said.
“A new fire station is truly a stepping stone to get to that point.”
Brandenburg, Doran raise more than $14K
Not only is the race for Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioner hotly contested; it also happens to be the most-expensive race in the valley.
Brandenburg and Doran both expect to raise more than $5,000 in campaign contributions. As a result, both are required to report all donors and expenses to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The PDC website shows that Brandenburg had raised $10,716.59 as of Monday (Sept. 23), with $3,102.50 coming from Brandenburg himself.
While a candidate can donate an unlimited amount of cash to his or her own campaign, outside donors in this race are limited to $1,000.
Brandenburg’s top donors, according to the PDC:
Winthrop Firefighter Association, $1,000
Paul Sisson, $1,000
Emily Sisson, $999
Mazama Fire Department Association, $500
Karen Mulkahy, $500
Erick Rottman, $500
Brandenburg’s biggest reported expense was $2,000 to D*Signs of Twisp for yard signs.
Doran’s name has appeared on the PDC website since Friday (Sept. 20), but the PDC is still processing his materials. His individual donations and expenses were not available as of Monday (Sept. 23).
In an interview earlier this month, Doran said he had raised about $3,500 so far and expects to finish with slightly more than $5,000 in donations.
Doran’s expenditures have appeared in the community in the form of yard signs and mass mailings. Brandenburg said he would send his own informational flyer in the mail in the coming weeks.