Fire district annexation returns to ballot

Residents of Friday Harbor and those living within the boundaries of San Juan County Fire District No. 3 will be asked to approve the annexation of the Town of Friday Harbor into the fire district during an April 27 special election.

This is the second time the measure has been on the ballot as the pandemic caused the district to pull the vote from the April 2020 election because of the pandemic.

“I can tell you that this was probably the first thing I was informed of when I got my job here, It was one of the issues that was going to have to come up eventually,” Town of Friday Harbor Administrator Duncan Wilson said at a town council meeting in February 2020. “In order to help facilitate that merger, it will be important for the town to be annexed into the fire district.”

Currently, Friday Harbor property owners don’t pay directly out of their property tax, but rather the town pays approximately $300,000 out of its general fund annually to contract the services of San Juan County Fire District 3. In 2019, the town’s taxpayers paid $297,375 to San Juan Fire as part of its interlocal agreement. The town has budgeted $315,000 for the services in 2020. According to the town’s ordinance, approximately 58 percent of Friday Harbor’s current property taxes go toward the fire protection contract.

“Right now, we pay for the service but we don’t get to vote for who’s on the fire commission,” Wilson said. “This will give us the right to vote for it in addition to assisting in the process of helping the merger through. … We believe that if this vote is passed by our voters, that it will assist in that eventual process.”

If approved, the property owners of Friday Harbor will begin paying the rate those who live outside of the town limits for their existing fire levy. The proposed rate is 44.5 cents per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.

“To phase the impact for town property owners, the Council committed [to] reducing its general property tax levy by $200,000 in 2022 and $100,000 the second year of the annexation, in 2023,” Tom Eades, Becki Day and Charles Dalldorf wrote in the argument for the statement in the voter’s pamphlet. “Thereafter the full property tax levy for the Town would be assessed.”

But it isn’t just Friday Harbor residents who are deciding on the annexation.

“In addition to the people of the town voting on this, it also needs to be voted on by all the other parties currently in the fire district,” Wilson said. “All of the voters outside of town have to accept us in.”

The measure must pass both the town and the district to be approved.

“We have an opportunity to set up the fire district and EMS in such a way that we have a unified tax base that will allow us to let those organizations merge and provide — we hope — better overall service in the long run to the citizens on this island and some of the [outer] islands that also receive that service as well,” Wilson said. “There’s many reasons here. … but all of them are important.”

At a town council later in February 2020, San Juan Island Fire Chief Norvin Collins commented on the importance of the annexation and merger.

“It’s more cost-effective to bring us together and it will improve service to the community, including here in Friday Harbor,” Collins said. “This will benefit both us and you all as the town and we’re fully in lockstep in trying to make that happen for both of us.”