Council denies petition to put Decatur fire district on ballot

After two hours of testimony, the San Juan County Council voted unanimously against a petition that would have put the formation of a fire district on Decatur Island before voters in the next election.

“In fire district cases, the council has the authority to make sure it’s having a positive benefit for the community. I totally support this if that’s what the entire community wants, but there was a lot of opposition to this,” Councilmember Rick Hughes told the Sounder. “Decatur is a small and remote rural island and that’s a lot of money to tax for a population where there might not be enough people for volunteer responders. A lot of the folks who live there full-time are over 70.”

On June 14, a petition with 12 signatures was certified by the San Juan County Auditor through its county election supervisor.

Decatur, which is not served by a ferry, has a total of 84 residents, and the signatures of 10 percent of register voters is required for a petition. In the last general election, 56 votes were cast from Decatur residents.

The proposal stated: “There is a present need for the formation of such a Fire Protection District to serve the public welfare and convenience of the Decatur Island community and it is necessary that such a district be formed, so the Decatur island residents can better manage fire risk and emergency medical response.”

If council had approved the petition, the proposed Decatur Island Fire Protection District would be approved or rejected by Decatur voters in the November general election.

If approved, it would have been governed by three elected commissioners, and the average cost to homeowners would be $220 per year — which Hughes says is a guess, as the millage rate can vary.

According to San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs, since 1999, there have been a total of 228 emergency calls on Decatur. So far for 2019, there have been seven.

Hughes said about 65 percent of the emergencies are for medical issues while the rest are fire response. Currently, the Washington Department of Natural Resources handles fire-related incidents, while San Juan, Orcas or Lopez emergency personnel will respond to aid calls, depending on who is available.

“Decatur residents have direct calls to MedFlight (air ambulance) so they often just call them,” Hughes said to the Sounder.

Council reviewed the petition and listened to lengthy testimony from both sides at a hearing on July 23. Hughes said some residents argued that it was wrong for homeowners who didn’t actually live on Decatur to be able to vote on the proposed district.

Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna spoke during the meeting as a private citizen, stating that it is not illegal to cast a vote in an area of second homeownership.

“We want the community to come back together with a plan of how the money would be used and if the majority of the community was for it,” Hughes said.