Investigators: Broke ferry system paying huge salaries to fortunate few

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on May 4, 2010 at 10:50 PM

Nothing says Washington State quite like a majestic ferry crossing Puget Sound.

"It’s beautiful scenery and very relaxing and interesting,” said tourist Shirley Thomas. And nothing says mega money quite like the paychecks collected by some state employees working on those boats.

While the ferry system is going broke, somehow the state is finding plenty to go around for a group of ferry employees. Not the captains or mates you see on the deck, but people who work below deck in the engine room. They are the staff chief engineers who are in charge of the boat's engines and electrical systems. 

The KING 5 Investigators have found many of those staff chief engineers are boosting their pay year after year through massive amounts of overtime.   Public records obtained by KING 5 show some of the money is earned in triple time: $140 an hour - while their boats are out-of-service for repairs and maintenance.

KING 5 found 12 of the 21 staff chief engineers have collected that costly triple time in the last three years.

How'd that happen? They were called in off their vacations to go to the maintenance yard with their boats to make sure everything goes by the book.

But there's nothing in a union contract saying the staff chief engineer has to scrap vacation plans and come in on triple pay because of repairs or maintenance work. That's just the way it's always been done at the Washington State Ferries. Management has chosen this option despite the fact that each boat has a well-qualified alternate staff chief who could do the work for straight time.

One ferry rider questioned that decision.

"We're footing the bill for that? That's terrible. I think that's pretty bad."

Here's an example: The staff chief engineer of the ferry Puyallup - Mark Nitchman - put in for and received 60 hours of vacation in November 2008. At the same time, his boat was set for pre-scheduled maintenance for the entire month. And because staff chief engineers have always gone with their boat to dry dock, Nitchman was called off his vacation and made triple time for the inconvenience.

Washington State Ferries Director David Moseley, who has been on the job for two years, didn't know about the triple vacation pay until KING requested public records. Now he is planning to do something about it.

"We are looking for solutions; there is no question about that. There is no question that this has focused our attention on it," said Moseley.

The KING 5 Investigators' review of the records shows vacation triple time is just one way several engineers hit the paycheck jackpot year after year. In 2008, Mark Nitchman nearly doubled his base salary of $89,000 to $169,000. The extra money came mostly in the form of double time earned by coming in to work on his days off.

In 2007 the ferry Tacoma's staff chief engineer - Ben Davis - saw his pay skyrocket from $88,000 to $173,000 - again nearly double. It's hard to hear when many are seeing wage freezes, furloughs, and the unemployment line.

"We got a lot of taxpayers, roads, schools, police departments doing all these cut backs, it's just unbelievable," said a ferry passenger on a Bremerton run.

And the top engineer of the ferry Wenatchee – Doug Phillips - saw the top pay boost in the records KING obtained: from $90,000 in 2008 to $190,000 - more than doubling his salary, mostly with overtime.

Several sources within the ferry system tell us some engineers are allowed to work overtime whenever they feel like it. 

Reporter Susannah Frame said, “What they're telling us is that your staff chief engineers basically assign themselves their own OT. There's a blank check and they're filling it out, and when you look at the records it kind of looks like that."

"That's exactly why we need to have more structure around the overtime and that's exactly why that's such an important part of our negotiating process," said Moseley.

Who's allowing all those tax dollars to be spent on double and triple time?

Mike LaCroix is the Senior Port Engineer and the direct boss of all the staff chiefs. And his boss is  Paul Brodeur, Director of Vessel Maintenance for Washington State Ferries. Neither of them would talk to KING 5.

When Frame asked ferry Director Moseley if he thought Mike LaCroix and Paul Brodeur did a good job of managing overtime, he answered by saying he believes in his management team and that the practice has been around for years.

"This process had been going on a long time, Susannah, and it will take us awhile to turn this around. I have faith and confidence in Mike and Paul,” said Moseley.

Since KING 5 started asking questions, Mike LaCroix - the ferry engineers’ direct boss - resigned from his management position and will be working on a boat again.

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