CURLEW — Years of devastating wildfires, windstorms and flooding is taking a toll on Ferry County resources and funding.
That was the message local officials expressed to Gov. Jay Inslee last week at the Curlew Fire Hall.
“The is the most richest part of the State in Washington,” Inslee said. “You’ve got a great community that pulls together.”
Inslee said the primary purpose for his visit was to see if there was “any way we could help in the short-term,” and to discuss the upcoming wildfire season.
Inslee declared a state of emergency for 17 counties, including Ferry County, earlier this month.
Inslee and his wife, Trudy, were in Ferry County Wednesday, May 23. They later visited the Ferry County Rail Trail.
“Something needs to change this trend or Ferry County is not going to look like it does now, probably in the next few years,” Ferry County Sheriff Ray Maycumber told the governor.
Ferry County Commissioner Nathan Davis echoed that.
“We’re getting to a point where we’ve made seven changes with positions,” Davis said. “You keep whittling down, but we’re to a point … just to put it in perspective of the economy and where we are at, Kinross winding down, multiple years of fires, flood it’s taken a toll on us in a big way.”
Davis said Secure Rural School funding accounts for about 8.4 percent of the county’s budget.
“We’re already starting to lobby for the future,” Davis said. “We would like a more permanent fix.”
“Will your success in future years be dependent on the whole national program, or will it be dependent just on your fair (share) on the composition and somebody’s evaluation of your application? Or both?” said Inslee.
“That’s tied with the forests,” Davis said. “When the logging cut back and we got 25 percent less tax, they supplemented with the PILT money and the SRS. It’s a lot less than what it was.”
Davis said other aspects, such as property and sales tax, must be looked at, too.
“With Kinross putting millions into our communities, and then all of a sudden it’s gone or a lot less, then that’s another factor,” Davis said. “We’ve got all of these factors that add up to the ultimate storm which I’m trying to avoid.
“It’s like, yeah, we can get through this year. Maybe next year. But pretty soon, the last four years, when you look at total revenue, total expenses, we’re in the negative. You just can’t keep doing that.”
Davis said the Kinross-Kettle River Buckhorn Mine is “pretty much on its way out,” noting reclamation work is under way.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, chimed in, noting red tape and length of the permitting process to dig test wells has not helped the financial situation in Ferry County.
“We were unable to get permits to drill 2.5-inch (test) holes in the ground,” Kretz said. “We’re seven years now in the permitting (process).
“For those sorts of things, the biggest blockade is figuring out a way to get our state, federal agencies … (to) try to get something done there.
“What we’re running in to is a company like Kinross shoving millions of bucks into something that they were told would take two years permitting,” Kretz said. “We’re seven years in. There’s no business model … to me that’s the biggest thing we can work on.”
Davis agreed with Kretz noting the average annual income of Kinross employees was $80,000.
“So, our median income is like, $36,000. That’s with that (Kinross),” Davis said. He said if Kinross employees’ salaries were not included in the overall bottom line, the median income would fall to about $20,000.
Using a chart compiled by Davis, he showed Inslee a breakdown of county tax sources.
He said the county’s actual use tax is about 5.22 percent, “and that is supporting our county in a general way.”
Inslee questioned if the state Department of Transportation assisted with joint funding for road maintenance and repairs.
“No, not really,” said Ferry County Public Works Director Ron Charlton. “They have their money and we have ours. We have great relationships with the tribe and the DOT. You’re limited of what you can spend your funds on, and they’re the same way. We can reach out and give each other a hand, but only a little.”
Maycumber echoed Charlton, noting the county can’t collect tax for the Colville Indian Reservation and it’s “over half of the land mass of the county.
“A lot of tribes will contribute to help out with those infrastructure (needs),” Maycumber said. “The county is responsible for a lot of the roads and public services yet does not receive revenue.”
“Right now, we have a good relationship and we do have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with them (tribe),” Charlton said, adding approximately 70 percent of county roads are on the reservation.
Davis said a pilot project to bring broadband to Ferry County is under way and should be an asset in times of emergency.
“We’re tying it to emergency services and the need of that,” Davis said. “We’re going to test the new technology. We’re going to test for latency and all the parameters before we go out and go after a big grant.”
He said a funding match from Microsoft is in place and the unit will be mobile, so it can be tested in different locations of the county.
“I think it’s critical. You are not crying wolf,” Inslee said. “You’re operating on thin margins already. I just want you to know I am sympathetic to your plight. I think it is real. You don’t have to do a lot to convince me.”
“I’m at a loss,” Davis said. “The stress level has gone way up. How do you account for nearly a 10 percent swing like that? How do you plan for that? How many people do you lay off or not lay off?”
Ferry-Okanogan Fire Protection District No. 14 Chief Foster Fanning said the landscape of Ferry County is different than other counties and that factor should be accounted for, too.
“One of the things that makes Ferry County truly unique is the tight mountain valleys with such narrow corridors where the population resides,” he said. “Fundamentally, the infrastructure is developed on a mountain side. Every single road, every single powerline … so when you look at that it’s a whole different demographic.”
When the windstorm of 2012 ripped though the region, electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration left residents in the dark for several weeks.
“In 2012 we actually brought the Verizon management here,” Fanning said. “What they hadn’t done was they hadn’t changed their batteries on their cycle because we’re so remote and there’s only a few hundred cellphones around; it lasted less than 48 hours.”
“Counties in general are in trouble,” Inslee said. “We realize that your challenges are more acute than most counties and I’m happy to explore ideas about this with you.
“King County doesn’t have fire and flood, but it’s got social service needs that are pretty acute, too,” Inslee said.
Maycumber told Inslee that the idea of a centralized 911 center would cause even more financial burden on the county.
He said it cost the county about $600,000 each year for the county’s 911 center.
“We can run that very close to the amount of money from the 911 contract we receive from the state as it is right now,” Maycumber said.
“All the 911 equipment goes away, but the 911 dispatchers, the same number of employees, have to stay here because we have to dispatch police and fire 24/7.
“The impact to Ferry County would be greater if we were to be forced into regionalization,” he said. “The impact is substantial to the smaller counties.”
Inslee said natural disasters will likely get worse in the years ahead.
“We’re in for more extreme weather events,” he said. “Our climate is changing. There’s no question about it.
“It’s going to be an increasing load and we have to have a federal response to that,” he said.
“I hope this isn’t too controversial, but we’ve got to realize the climate changes have real implications for real sheriffs and real emergency responders. This is not a hypothetical issue.
“Whoever follows you 10 or 20 years from now is going to have more drought, more wind, more hot temperatures, more rapid runoff,” he said. “This will be an increasing demand.”