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January 18, 2020

9/16/2015 8:45:00 AM
Taxpayers face long odds to detach from Fire District
Nicole Jennings

With taxpayers on the east side of Swinomish Channel already circulating petitions seeking to break away from Fire District 13 to join Fire District 2, Skagit County officials had to hit the books to figure out what the process entails.
Residents detaching from a tax supported district in Skagit County hasn’t been done in so long nobody can remember it happening before. And according to one state lawmaker, doing so could take an act of the Legislature to make it possible.
Skagit County Elections Supervisor David Cunningham had to do special research into the protocol for such a petition, since, as he said, it has happened so rarely.
The District 13 citizens on the east side of the Swinomish Channel are looking to break away from the rest of the district after the “Great Wolf” decision caused their property taxes to skyrocket when the neighborhood that generates the most emergency calls in that fire agency was taken off the property tax rolls.
The federal court ruling exempted residents of tribal land from paying property taxes — which meant that 931 homes in Shelter Bay and in the Pull & Be Damned Road neighborhood came off the tax rolls, shifting the costs of schools, fire protection, and other government services to the remaining taxpayers.
Fire District 13 figures show that more than half of its emergency responses are on the tax-exempt land, and while roughly half of the district’s geographical territory lies east of the channel, that area generates only a tiny fraction of the emergency calls.
But cost is only part of the reason — residents in Pleasant Ridge, where part of the community is already served by District 2, are concerned about response times and service also, said Mickey Bambrick, one of the residents spearheading the petition effort.
If the taxpayers in the Pleasant Ridge and Channel Drive neighborhoods pursue the petition drive to secede from District 13, there will be many hoops to jump through before they can achieve their goal, said Cunningham. The entire process is laid out in RCW 57.28.050.
For the movement to get started, petitioners must collect the signatures of 25 percent of the registered voters in the withdrawal territory. Cunningham stressed that the voters must be qualified the day the petition is submitted; for example, if a person signed and then died before the petition was turned in, that signature would be invalid and would not count.
From there, the petition would go to the Fire District 13 board of commissioners, who would then have two questions to answer. They would have to decide, “Would this benefit the district?” and “Would it benefit the general welfare of the district boundaries?” explained Cunningham. After the District 13 commissioners gave their yea or nay answer for each question, they would send on the petition to the Skagit County Board of Commissioners.
The county commissioners would hold a public hearing in which they also answered the two critical questions. “If the county commissioners answer either of the two questions in the negative — or if they answer positively but their answers differ from Fire District 13’s — then the petition is denied,” said Cunningham. In other words, the only way for the petition to win at this point would be for both boards to unanimously answer yes to both questions.
However, a denied petition isn’t the end of the battle. If this happens, the county will then call a special election for voters in all of District 13 to decide on the matter. This way, rather than commissioners shooting down the movement, the decision will pass directly into the hands of the people. 
However, in this case, the majority of the voters live west of the Swinomish Channel, and many of those voters live on land that is exempt from property tax. Voters on privately owned or “fee simple” land on the reservation could see their own tax burdens rise again if taxpayers in a portion of Fire District 13 leave. Thus, the property owners on the east side of the channel will be at the mercy of a majority of voters who would have little incentive to grant their secession effort.
Despite the long odds of success, the property owners on the east side of the channel say they are hopeful that they can bring about real change with the petition and that it has become necessary to take any action to stop the tax disparity that has impacted the La Conner area following the federal court’s so-called Great Wolf Decision.
Almost all residents on the water side of Channel Drive saw their property taxes increase by at least 20 percent this year. Dave Buchan said that the fire district portion of his tax bill went up by 50 percent.
“We’re paying higher property taxes on Channel Drive than we were in Bellevue,” said Channel Drive homeowner Mik Endrody. 
State legislators in Olympia said the tax situation in La Conner — a place hit hard by the Great Wolf Decision — could be a wake-up call for lawmakers in Washington to revisit and pos-sibly rewrite the laws concerning taxes and special districts. 
“La Conner’s situation is significant,” said State Representative Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “It will help to drive change in the state...it will help pave the way,” she said. 
Smith said that she hopes a thorough analysis of the state’s laws — the RCWs — will be at the top of the agenda when the state legislature resumes its session in January, and she is committed to helping this process.
“I, for one, am willing to look at the RCWs,” she said, promising to take part in any “serious reconstruction” of the laws that may be needed.
However, the legislators acknowledged that change needs to come not only at the governmental level, but also at the local one.
“I hope that communities will come together...and discuss workable solutions. This needs give and take,” said State Senator Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. 
“We all live together. We all must solve the problem together,” she said. “As voting citizens, we must not pull apart.”
Bailey called the effects of the Great Wolf Decision “the complete dismantling of the tax structures that are in place.” 
Smith applauds the District 13 petitioners for exercising their constitutional rights. When there is a problem, she said, “people have every right to bring it to the government’s attention.”

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