Bonneville Power plans to buy land from county

— Okanogan County commissioners are waiting to hear more on a possible land purchase by the Bonneville Power Administration in the Salmon Creek area.

The federal agency gave the news last week to the county, which has been working on a study to analyze the impacts of governments’ land acquisitions on the local economy.

“The commissioners were clear – no more property taken off the tax rolls,” Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy said.

Bonneville Power Administration is negotiating the purchase of two parcels totaling about 160 acres of land, the agency told commissioners last week, but Kennedy said details were otherwise scarce.

“I guess the meeting was to let us know more land will be taken off the tax rolls, but he couldn’t give us any information,” she said. “I did ask them what the total amount of taxes will be lost and he could not answer that… he did say he would follow up with that information when he could.”

Roy Beaty, the Bonneville Power Administration representative who spoke with the commissioners, said the land is being pursued for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, pursuant to the 2008 Columbia Basin Fish Accords.

“Those are the only ones in Okanogan County we’re looking at with the Colville Fish Accords in FY (fiscal year) ‘13, which ends in September,” he said.

If the land purchases go through as planned by the end of next month, Beaty said the commissioners will be notified along with other landowners in the Salmon Creek area. He said those letters could be mailed out as early as the end of this week. Following that, public notice will be given in local newspapers, “assuming everything works out.”

Beaty declined to say precisely where the land is located.

“We do not yet have purchase and sale agreements, so I cannot and will not identify properties,” he said.

Beaty said Bonneville Power is committed to notifying the commissioners of the agency’s land acquisitions “before they become public knowledge.”

“We have asked to be informed and I think that is what BPA thought they were doing Tuesday, but they shared no names, no dollar amount, not information on the negative impact to our budget,” Kennedy said. “So that meeting was not informative, they gave us nothing other than they are working on purchasing two properties soon and want to get it done prior to Sept. 30.”

Part of the Bonneville Power Administration’s duties, along with local public utility districts and other agencies, is to provide funds for salmon recovery efforts as they’re killed every year going through turbines at dams along the Columbia River. Bill Maslen, director of Bonneville Power’s integrated fish and wildlife program, told commissioners in April that the salmon survival rate is about 50 to 60 percent once fish reach the end of the eight-dam system.

Although Bonneville Power puts up money for the land, ownership and management of the land is often turned over to the agency it was purchased for, such as the Colville tribe.

Overall, about 25 to 28 percent of the county’s 3.4 million acres is privately owned, according to county assessor Scott Furman.

The tax base for all of Okanogan County is about $3.95 billion, Furman said, and while the land acquisitions put a dent in that amount, it still grows whenever there’s new development.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife owns about 80,000 acres, or 2 percent, of Okanogan County land.

Rather than paying property taxes on any developed land within the 80,000 acres, the state pays a smaller “payment in lieu of taxes” to the county.

Okanogan County Commissioners — Chairman Jim DeTro in particular — have publicly protested payment in lieu of taxes. DeTro has said he’s in favor of doing away with the loophole entirely, requiring the federal and state governments to pay their fair share of property taxes to lessen the burden on private landowners.

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