Landslide threatens survival of fire districts in Oso, Darrington

OSO — The mudslide that claimed more than three dozen lives also could threaten the financial survival of the Oso and Darrington fire districts.

While the fire districts expect to be reimbursed for the initial emergency response, the March 22 slide also destroyed some of the properties that make up their tax base.

It’s not just the fire districts that have been hit.

Schools, hospitals and libraries also will lose tax revenue this year because of the property damage, according to the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office.

Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper has been talking with county leaders and the governor’s office about what to do. Part of his job is making sure that his all-volunteer fire department can continue to protect the community.

The fire district brings in about $100,000 in property taxes each year, Harper said. Of that, $30,000 goes to the city of Arlington. City firefighters provide some medical services to Oso, such as taking patients to the hospital.

“That leaves us about $70,000, sometimes $75,000 from our fire tax,” Harper said.

After insurance and utility bills, the Oso fire district is left with maybe $10,000 each year for other expenses, including firefighting gear and rig repairs, Harper said.

“Anything extra comes out of that fund, which usually gets depleted regularly,” the chief said. “The amount of tax revenue from houses that were lost completely wipes out that capital expenditure fund, basically our spending money for the year to buy things and repair things.”

Harper met with Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month and they talked about the tax loss, Inslee spokesman David Postman said.

“It’s one of the growing list of questions that are coming out of this and that are going to be addressed in some way,” Postman said. “Like all of those, there’s no easy answer.”

The Oso fire district, officially known as Snohomish County Fire District 25, covers the area roughly between mileposts 27 and 38 on Highway 530 along the North Fork Stillaguamish River and up to the Snohomish-Skagit county line. There are 602 registered voters in the district, county elections spokesman manager Garth Fell said.

The Darrington district, Fire District 24, has 1,602 registered voters.

It covers the town of Darrington and west along the Stilly until about milepost 38 and northeast along the Sauk River into Skagit County.

Both of the fire districts have two levies, one for general expenses and one for emergency medical services, according to the county assessor’s office.

As of this week, the county estimated 2014’s total projected losses for local taxing districts at $62,575. That figure includes money collected to pay for fire districts, county government, schools, hospitals, the regional library and roads.

Harper said he expects his fire district to be reimbursed for most of the emergency response costs for the slide from the state and federal governments.

What won’t be covered is the time his department of 16 volunteers, ages 18 to 72, spent in the debris field.

“The first day was 24 hours, and every day from then on and out was basically 15- to 18-hour days,” Harper said. “They were out digging with their hands.”

Some of the volunteer firefighters were able to take vacation time from their jobs. Others may need help making up for missed work.

WorkSource and local nonprofits have been in Oso trying to help, he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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