8/5/2015 10:30:00 AM Tax disparity prompts
Nicole Jennings and Sandy Stokes
A federal court ruling that exempted more than a third of the parcels in Fire District 13 from property tax has some taxpayers on the east side of Swinomish Channel wanting to switch fire districts. The so-called “Great Wolf Lodge” ruling, which determined that homes on leased reservation land in Shelter Bay and in the Pull & Be Damned road neighborhoods are immune from county and state property tax, did not impact the budget for Fire District 13. That’s because the agency simply shifted its entire tax burden to the remaining taxpayers. Based on figures provided by the Skagit County Assessor’s Office, residents on Pleasant Ridge and on Channel Drive, which generate only a handful of calls each year, pay a disproportionate share of the property taxes. Of District 13’s $444,370 property tax assessment, taxpayers on the east side of the channel pay about 29 percent. Yet, according to the fire district’s figures, the east side of the Swinomish Channel generated less than five percent of the 456 calls during the first six months of this year. The district’s remaining taxpayers include those on privately owned “fee simple” properties on the Swinomish Reservation and non-reservation land in the Anacortes area. District figures show that the vast majority of its emergency calls occur in Shelter Bay, on the Swinomish Reservation and at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge. A fire district report covering the first quarter of this year had four calls on Channel Drive, one on Pleasant Ridge, and 12 on Highway 20. During that same period, there were 65 calls in Shelter Bay, and 19 calls at the casino. Fire district figures also show that more than half its calls are generated on the tax exempt reservation trust land. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community does not pay taxes, but contributes $150,000 to the fire department. That amount is in addition to the $444,370 the district has assessed taxpayers this year. Fire District 13 Chief Roy Horn said on Tuesday he hadn’t heard about residents wanting to detach from the district. But Skagit County officials have been hearing rumbles about taxpayers on the east side of the Swinomish Channel wanting to secede from Fire District 13. Skagit County Elections Supervisor David Cummings said his office has been contacted by people wanting to know how to get started. The process of detaching from the district would start with gathering signatures on a petition, he said. Dave Buchan, a resident of Channel Drive, said his fire district taxes increased by 50 percent this year. He said he plans to speak to the Fire District 2 commissioners about annexing to that district, also known as the McLean Road Fire Department. Also, he will speak to his neighbors to see if they’re on board with the idea. He said response times from the McLean Road fire station could be more efficient for his neighborhood, as well. He is also putting together a group of neighbors to appear before the Skagit County Commissioners, whom he feels have “washed their hands of the issue” regarding the entire tax shift. He also saw his school taxes jump by 30 percent. “This is fundamentally a lack of leadership…that borders on incompetence,” he said. He wants to see a “broader look from government leaders at how to solve” the issue, which could include raising the amount of aid from the federal government. “At some point, the whole issue needs to be resolved so it’s fair and equitable for all,” said Buchan. Nancy Beales, a resident of the still-taxable part of Fire District 13 on Channel Drive noted, “A few people can’t pay for everyone’s basic needs.” Reporter Alexander Wirth contributed to this story.