Town, district residents must approve proposal
Twisp residents will decide whether they want to become part of Okanogan County Fire District 6 when they vote on proposed annexation in the Aug. 1 primary election.
At the same time, residents of the fire district will vote on whether to annex the town. Voters in both jurisdictions must approve the proposal for it to pass.
It will be a somewhat more complicated decision for Twisp residents. If they approve the annexation, they will see their taxes increase by 61 cents per $1,000 of property value when they become part of the district. If they choose not to annex, the question of how the town will provide fire protection in the future becomes more uncertain.
Currently the town has an agreement with the district to provide fire protection services in Twisp through 2023, at an annual rate of $60,000. That agreement is renewed each year. But the contract rate is likely to increase dramatically in the future to reflect the actual value of fire protection the district provides to the town.
The decision-making has already begun. Mail-in ballots were sent out by the Okanogan County Auditor’s Office last week.
District 6 is, annexation or not, about the town’s only option. Twisp doesn’t have the resources to re-launch its own fire department, and annexation discussions have been periodically engaged for several years.
After lengthy negotiations, the town and fire district earlier this year reached a pre-annexation agreement that spells out the terms of how the town will be annexed to the district if voters approve, including the transfer of some town assets such as the existing fire station on West Second Avenue and a town-owned fire truck. The town and district have agreed to a sale price of $328,000 for the existing, town-owned fire station site on West Second Avenue, pending annexation.
The “effective date of annexation” would be the date on which election results are certified by the county, in this case Aug. 15. If an annexation is approved, the existing fire protection agreement would remain in place until the district began taxing town residents in 2024.
If Twisp becomes part of the fire district, town residents will be eligible to vote in elections affecting Fire District 6 operations, and will be eligible to run for positions on the district’s board of commissioners. Currently, Twisp residents have no direct say in the operation of the fire district.
The Town of Winthrop annexed into the fire district in 2017, leaving Twisp as the only valley town still contracting for protection. Winthrop had also previously had contracts with the fire district for protection.
According to information provided by the town and fire district, there will be no changes in how the district responds to fire protection needs in Twisp or in the rest of District 6.
The town will not reduce its local property tax levy, which is expected to rise to $1.98 per $1,000 of property value if the annexation is approved. The $60,000 that has been earmarked for the fire services contract will be used for other town needs and services.
That may be a point of contention for some Twisp residents who would like to see their town taxes decrease. When Winthrop was annexed in 2017, the Winthrop Town Council made a similar decision not to reduce local taxes.
At a public information meeting last week jointly hosted by the town and fire district, Twisp Town Council member Hans Smith said annexation is the best alternative for continued fire protection. “It’s difficult to imagine the town starting its own fire department,” he said.
“It’s not a long-term viable strategy,” Smith said of contracting with the district, which he said is likely to be more expensive in the future.
Smith acknowledged that some residents may object to the additional tax burden, but added that “I don’t feel we can lower our tax rate” given other town needs.
Darold Brandenburg, one of three members of the fire district’s board of commissioners, said the district’s annexation of Winthrop has gone smoothly.
He noted that the fire district’s levy rate has dropped as property valuation has increased. The district “is in a really good position to keep doing what it’s doing and keep taxes low … we’re all here for everybody when stuff goes down,” he said.
“I don’t see any negatives at all” for the annexation proposal, Brandenburg said. “I think it’s a good idea.”
District 6 Chief Cody Acord said “we will not change” how the town is protected. And he noted that, with annexation, Twisp residents will have a say in future operations and can run for positions on the board of commissioners.
Several speakers at the information session expressed concerns about how the town would spend the $60,000 that will be saved by not contracting with the district.
Winthrop resident Paul Sisson urged approval of the annexation proposal, citing his town’s experience.
“You’re getting the best, and you’re getting it at a bargain cost,” he said. Sisson added that he supported Winthrop’s decision to use the money it saved by no longer contracting with the district for other community needs.
Brian McAuliffe, who formerly was one of the district’s paid employees, urged approval of annexation to head off what he said could be “astronomical costs” for fire service contracts in the future.
“We can’t afford that … and we can’t afford to start a fire department from ground zero,” McAuliffe said. “We’ve got to go with this.”
District 6 is the largest fire district in the state, covering 300 square miles of rural terrain from Gold Creek to Lost River with four fire stations.