Vote to annex Friday Harbor into fire district postponed

Vote to annex Friday Harbor into fire district postponed

The special election originally scheduled for April 28 has been postponed. The only proposed measure for San Juan County was whether to annex the Town of Friday Harbor into the San Juan Fire and Rescue Fire and Rescue District.

“There are too many worries right now, and we wanted to take this worry off people’s plate,” San Juan Fire and Rescue Chief Norvin Collins said.

After the fire department moved from its in-town location to its current Mullis Street station around 10 years ago, the town contracted the department to continue town coverage. The town has been paying approximately $300,000 annually from the general fund to contract fire services. According to Town Administrator Duncan Wilson, Friday Harbor also promised at that time to eventually annex into the district.

The ballot contained two questions — asking town voters to annex into the district, and asking district residents to approve the annexation.

The town currently does not charge property owners directly for the fire district coverage. Should the town be annexed, property owners will pay 48 cents per $1,000, Wilson said. This means the owner of a property worth $300,000 would pay $144 for fire services annually. Wilson clarified that fee goes directly to fire and rescue.

The town council has already approved a measure that would allow the town to retain the funds that would be paid to the district, after annexation, for capital projects including road and sidewalk repair and maintenance needs. Town property owners pay one of the lowest property tax rates in the state, at 84 cents per $1,000 assessed value. In comparison, some cities charge $3.10 per thousand. Cutting property taxes could cost the town a detrimental 60 percent of revenue.

Property owners in Friday Harbor are currently not able to elect fire district commissioners, and one of the benefits of becoming annexed, Wilson explained, would give town property owners a voice and a vote.

The annexation would also be a huge step forward toward merging emergency management service and the fire and rescue since the town is part of the EMS District, Wilson explained. A merger could not occur well if the two district footprints do not match, he added.

Collins summed up the benefits saying that the annexation would take the fire contracting fee off the town’s books, give property owners a voice in the fire district, and realine the district footprint with EMS for the organizations pending merger.

Not all special elections in Washington were canceled, Wilson said. San Juan County uses mail-in ballots, therefore the actual voting is safe. However, election staff still need to gather to mail, collect and count the ballots. In order to protect election staff and county residents both town and fire district officials decided to postpone the election, Wilson explained.

“We recognize the high level of anxiety and needed focus on the COVID-19 crisis. There is an unprecedented amount of financial uncertainty for many of our residents making the timing of the election inappropriate. It’s the right thing to do,” Bob Jarman, fire district commission chair said in a recent press release.

With the focus being on health, and meetings being canceled, the town and fire district would have limited ability to inform voters about the pros and cons of annexation, Wilson added.

Collins is hoping to schedule the election for August 4 of this year. Wilson pointed out that according to state law, the vote would need to be held by August 1 in order to meet the deadline for annexation to begin January 2021. Otherwise, Wilson added, the town is prepared to continue to pay for the contract through 2021.

The timing of the election was meant to match the end of the five-year contract with the town, Collins said. As a result of the postponement, the district will likely need to renegotiate with Friday Harbor.

Whatever election outcome, Collins assured the town they will not be without fire service.

“We will not allow for the town not to be covered,’” Collins said. “During this unprecedented health crisis, we are focused on the islands we serve, and we are working directly with our neighboring islands to protect San Juan County.”