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In or Out?
Twisp fire district annexation

The Twisp town council is preparing to put a measure on the ballot in 2014 asking town residents if they want to be annexed into Okanogan County Fire District 6, according to Mayor Soo Ing-Moody.

photoTwisp mayor Soo Ing-Moody

Annexation “is definitely something we’d like to do,” she told Grist. The mayor and council recently emerged from a bruising battle with fire district officials over terms of a five-year contract for fire service after the town was forced to shut down its own sub-standard fire department.

Annexation may have tax implications for Twisp property owners. It will require a “yes” vote of town residents as well as those already living within the fire district’s boundaries.

“There’s a lot of work to do” before the town will be ready to ask voters about annexation, said Ing-Moody, who added that the council will hold a public meeting to hear citizens’ views and to present possible taxing options.

Fire commissioner Roy Reiber told Grist Monday (June 10) that the commissioners would agree to putting annexation on the ballot in 2014. “I don’t think we can get it done sooner,” he said. Fire district officials have made it clear they prefer that the town seek annexation but the formal annexation proposal to the district must be initiated by the town.

Before agreeing to pursue annexation, the council during its March retreat heard a presentation by Chelan County Fire Chief Mike Burnett, hired by the town as a consultant on the fire protection issue facing Twisp.

He said the town either must continue to contract for service with the fire district or annex to become part of the district. He advised the town to annex.

photoOkanogan Fire District 6 Commissioner Roy Reiber

“You don’t have the resources you need right now to build a strong fire department,” said Burnett. Twisp lacks volunteers to staff a fire department, he said, and the process of establishing and maintaining a fire department is both costly and complex, with multi-layered state and federal requirements that must be met.

A major advantage of annexation is that it would free town officials from perpetually having to negotiate fire service contracts that are likely to have escalating costs that the town cannot control, Burnett pointed out.

As became clear during the contentious contract negotiations, since Twisp has no alternatives for obtaining fire service, its elected officials are at a disadvantage when negotiating price with fire district commissioners. “You’re definitely not in a position where you’re negotiating from a position of strength,” said Burnett. If the town and fire district cannot agree, fire district officials say they have no legal obligation to provide fire service to town residents.

But if the town were annexed, any future increase in funding sought by fire district commissioners will have to be approved by voters themselves, not negotiated by the town council. And if Twisp transfers responsibility for fire protection to Fire District 6, the town and its taxpayers also transfer liability, he pointed out.

Among issues facing Twisp council members - who have chosen to serve without pay because of the town’s financial difficulties - is sorting out possible property tax implications of annexation for Twisp property owners.

Residents already within the fire district currently pay 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation for fire protection, and Twisp property owners will be required to pay the same amount if they vote to join the district.

Under the current contract, Twisp is paying $35,000 for fire services; by the last year of the contract in 2017 the cost will have risen to $48,620. “If the town annexes to the fire district, property owners in Twisp would pay $53,046 based on current assessed valuations,” District 6 Fire Chief Don Waller told Grist.

However, town officials have argued that Twisp taxpayers should be given some credit for the financial contributions that built the Twisp fire station now used by the fire district.

The town of Twisp collects $1.88 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation to help pay for town services - a total of $164,851 for 2013, according to Clerk/Treasurer Jackie Moriarty.

photo of twisp fire stationThe Twisp fire station. The town recently shut down its fire department and contracted with the fire district for services.

One option presented to the council for consideration by Burnett at the retreat would be to simply reduce the town’s tax collection by the 60 cents per $1,000 and shift the 60 cents to the fire district. If that option is chosen, Twisp property owners would pay taxes at the same rate as now, and the cash-strapped town’s income would shrink by about $53,000.

This year, for example, that option would have meant the town would have lost $52,817 of its $164, 851 in property tax revenues, according to Okanogan County Assessor Scott Furman – approximately the amount fire service would cost under annexation. (This year the town’s total budget is $2.1 million, much of it in restricted, single-purpose state or federal grants.)

On the other end of the spectrum of possibilities mentioned at the retreat was having the town continue to collect the entire $1.88. That would mean a tax increase of 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for property owners to pay the cost of obtaining fire protection services.

quote from storyYet another option, said Burnett, would be to reduce the amount of property tax going to the town by something less than 60 cents. This would mean property owners would pay more tax than they now do but not the full 60 cents per $1,000 needed to provide fire service.

If voters agreed to pay more property taxes so the town can retain some portion of the current property tax revenue stream for town services, those funds could be used to hire a third police officer to give residents full law enforcement coverage, or on sidewalks, the maintenance backlog, or other high-priority items suggested by town residents, according to town officials.

Losing more than $50,000 from the budget would increase the difficulty of delivering public services while coping with the escalating costs brought on by decades of neglect of the town’s facilities and infrastructure, council members say.

It was neglect of the now-disbanded Twisp Fire Department’s equipment that triggered the controversy over fire services in the first place. Fire District 6 officials, who previously fought fires under a joint agreement with the Twisp Fire Department, said they could no longer respond to fires using Twisp’s equipment. It was unsafe and posed a liability to the fire district because it had not been properly maintained, according to district fire officials.

But the under-funded town fire department isn’t the only historic, long-delayed maintenance problem to land in the laps of current town officials. Among drains on the budget have been a leaky roof and unsuspected hollow walls at town hall; a leaky, troubled swimming pool that’s reaching the end of its usable life; a leaking town water system and lack of water pressure to residents on Painter’s Addition above town; a balky wastewater plant with biological and mechanical malfunctions, and an aging street sweeper with expensive mechanical issues. Streets have deteriorated, and lack of sidewalks is a danger to pedestrian safety, they acknowledge.

“We can’t get to the next level” of providing the services needed by town residents given the amount of money that must be spent to fix deteriorating infrastructure and facilities, Ing-Moody said during the retreat.

The town has only $45,000 in its reserve account for emergencies but should have $160,000, which would see it through two months of expenditures, Ing Moody told Grist. “Before I came here we had nothing. This is what shocked me. It was very daunting.”

“I think everyone understands how difficult it is at any time to ask for an increase in taxes,” she added. “But the town isn’t in the business of making money. We’re in the business of providing services required by law.”


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