9/2/2015 9:11:00 AM Tax disparity leaves an unfair 'paying field' for fire service Tribal land tax issue
Paying for Fire District 13
Taxpayer costs per call * East of the Swinomish Channel: $3,205 per call West of the Swinomish Channel: $896 per call Tribe cost for tax exempt land: $262 per call 2015 property tax contributions East side: $129,823 West side: $314,547 (includes land in Anacortes area) Tribal contribution: $150,000 Calls for the first 8 months of 2015 ** East side: 27 West side taxable land: 234 Tax exempt tribal land: 381 Sources:Various Fire District 13 reports, Skagit 911 logs and the Skagit County Assessor’s Office. * For our call cost calculations, we pro-rated the annual tax and tribal contributions to reflect 8 months worth of funding. ** Call counts are based on Fire District 13 reports through July and actual counts of 911 dispatch calls for the month of August.
Frustrated taxpayers on the east side of the Swinomish Channel threaten to break away from Fire District 13 to join Fire District 2 over costs imposed by higher property tax bills. “We were going to retire here, but now we won’t be able to afford it,” said Linda Ryan, who lives on Channel Drive. “Tell me how it’s fair to be taxed out of our houses!” The “Great Wolf” federal court ruling exempted all structures on the Swinomish Reservation — including homes owned by non-tribal members on leased land in Shelter Bay — from paying state and county property taxes. This year the burden of paying for public services, including schools, the library and Fire District 13, was shifted to the remaining taxpayers in the districts. In the case of Fire District 13, taxpayers on the east side of the Swinomish Channel wound up paying a huge amount for fire protection. Ryan said that her property taxes and those of her neighbors increased by at least 20 percent overall this year. One neighbor, she said, was even hit with a 50 percent increase. Dave Buchan of Channel Drive said that the fire district portion of his taxes went up by half. Ryan says she is pleased with the quality of the service from Fire District 13. Still, she and Buchan and all the other Fire District 13 taxpayers east of the Swinomish Channel pay close to four times as much per fire call as taxpayers on the west side of the channel and more than 12 times as much per fire call as the Swinomish tribe contributes for calls on the tax-exempt tribal land. As of Monday, based on figures from the district and Skagit 911 call logs, Fire District 13 responded to 642 calls so far this year. Of those, only 27 were for calls on the east side of the channel. Based on the amount of taxes residents of Pleasant Ridge and Channel Drive and other taxpayers east of the channel contribute, each call cost them $3,205. Meanwhile, the taxpayers on the other side of the channel paid about $896 for each of the approximately 234 calls on privately owned “fee simple” land, while the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s contribution amounted to about $262 per call on the tax-free land. This newspaper calculated call numbers and costs using data from the county and fire district. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community will contribute $150,000 this year to the fire district for service on tax exempt tribal land, which according to the district accounts for about 59.4 percent of its calls. That would mean about 381 of the district’s calls so far this year occurred on land that cannot be legally taxed by the district. Although non-tribal home-owners who live on leased land on the reservation pay taxes assessed by the tribe, most of that money goes to fund tribal services. According to dispatch records as of Monday, Fire District 13 had responded to just four calls on the east side of the Swinomish Channel during the month of August. That number included a traffic accident on Highway 20 near the Twin Bridges. During the same period, there were 61 calls on the west side. Were the eastern chunk of District 13 to merge with District 2, residents now paying a premium could see their property taxes decrease significantly. Right now, the taxpayers who fund District 13 pay 99 cents per $1,000 of assessed value of their property for the fire district. However, if the 716 parcels east of the channel were added to Fire District 2, based on this year’s budget, the additional value added to that district could reduce property taxes to about 75 cents for each $1,000 of assessed value. Presently a property valued at $250,000 in District 13 is assessed nearly $250 for fire protection. With this year’s Fire District 2 budget — not taking into account any potential added costs for servicing a larger area — that same property could pay about $60 less, around $190 per year, for service from District 2. If eastern District 13 taxpayers are serious about seceding, there is a legal process they must adhere to, according to Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen. The District 13 Commissioners and the County Commissioners must approve the break before the movement could be placed on a ballot for voters to decide. “I understand the frustration of those on the east side of the channel,” Wesen said, “but there is a very specific process that has to take place.” Fire District 2 Commissioner Mike Madlung acknowledged that the addition of properties would “increase our revenues, but also our response areas. It’s good and bad,” he said. Fire District 13 Commission Chairman Chuck Hedlund said that he had heard nothing about secession and refused to comment any further, directing questions to District 13 Fire Chief Roy Horn. Horn said that while he couldn’t speak to what decision the commissioners would make in such a situation, he personally believed that the commission “would not be in favor” of such a break. When asked to explain why he believed this, he said that his belief did not come into play, and it was exclusively the commissioners’ decision. However, it seems that some property owners on the east side are primed to take action. Mickey Bambrick of Pleasant Ridge said she will begin collecting signatures on a petition this week. She said she has talked with residents of both Pleasant Ridge and Channel Drive and “every single person is in favor of breaking away.” Editor Sandy Stokes contrib-uted to this story. Disclosure: Mickey Bambrick is the author of two feature columns for this newspaper.