Fire district seeks Friday Harbor annexation in April election

The next step in the integration of fire and emergency medical services on San Juan Island requires a vote of the people.

The 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 28 special election.

On Feb. 18, the San Juan County Council agreed to send the measure in front of voters. The Town of Friday Harbor Council adopted an ordinance at its Feb. 6 meeting declaring its intention to annex the town into the fire district.

“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 the town council’s Feb. 6 meeting. “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 the 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 same levy rate those who live outside of the town limits pay. The district’s current rate is approximately 48 cents per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.

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 be approved by both the town and the district for the town to be annexed.

“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 the town council’s Feb. 20 meeting, both San Juan Island Fire Chief Norvin Collins and San Juan Island EMS Interim Chief Karl Kuetzing presented about their respective departments. They both 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.”

Kuetzing explained that the Integration Steering Committee, comprised of Collins, Kuetzing, Wilson, Frank Cardinale and San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner Anna Lisa Lindstrum addressed issues brought up by the Citizens Advisory Group, which had recommended the merger in April 2019, in its 117-page report.

“As we work toward trying to put these two entities together, we’re making really good progress trying to combine the differences in the boundaries and, of course, the town annexation is the next big milestone that we’re looking to try to solve and have an answer for,” Kuetzing said.