Investigators: Governor and DOT Chief call for reform of ferry system

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on May 12, 2010 at 10:15 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Over the past two months the KING 5 Investigators have exposed millions of dollars of waste of taxpayer dollars and a lack of accountability in the ferry system in a series of stories called "Waste on the Water."

Today the Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT), Paula Hammond, met with the journalists to discuss the stories and to announce changes aimed at addressing problems revealed by KING 5.

Hammond, appointed by the Governor in 2007 to lead the DOT, said Washington State Ferries is changing the way it does business.

"The screws are getting tightened all over state government, particularly at ferries because there have been some past practices that are absolutely true, not in the best interest of the state going forward, so we're changing those," said Hammond.

Background

In a continuing investigation of Washington State Ferries, KING 5 has exposed wasteful practices, including a multi-million dollar expense of paying ferry employees to drive to and from work for years on end, because their positions were labeled a "special project." We also found a select group of staff chief engineers annually receive massive amounts of overtime, most of which is self-assigned.

KING TV found a fortunate few chief engineers averaged a 50 percent pay boost, mostly through overtime payments, in the years for which public records were available. One engineer saw a 107 percent pay increase, more than doubling his salary.  The reporters uncovered much of the overtime could have been avoided, but while the ferry system is falling apart financially, management allowed it to go on. 

Secretary Hammond said those expenses must be curbed. “Especially in a ferry system that's broke, (it) has no money.  In the state government and the economy that our state is in, it's paramount that we get this under control,” said Hammond.

The KING 5 Investigators also found some staff chief engineers raked in another kind of overtime – triple time - for working when they were scheduled to be on vacation. Records show that for about half of the 21 men who hold those positions, that meant earning an hourly rate of $140 an hour. Hammond said she didn’t know about that practice until KING told her about it.

When asked why managers allowed this to happen for years, when the cost could have been avoided, she said it was just part of an entrenched culture. "I believe it's because they thought it was a past practice, that it was always sanctioned so-nobody questioned it."

As a result of the stories aired so far, Secretary Hammond and Governor Gregoire have instituted a series of changes. They’ll be hiring a deputy ferries director to ensure stronger management oversight. A new "red flag report" will be generated every quarter to identify employees making questionable overtime and why. They’ve assembled an expert panel with the assistance of the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) to conduct a management review.

A tip line for the public will be opened so people can report potential abuse and waste directly to the DOT Secretary’s office. The Washington State Auditor’s Office has been asked to examine the State Ferries timekeeping and payroll processing system. And, after 30 years of paying the costly travel time perk for special projects employees, the state has put a stop to the practice. They’ve also reduced the opportunities for employees to make triple time. “We're not letting people get away with special deals, if it happened in the past, it's stopping now," said Hammond.

As the state is rolling out cost savings and better oversight initiatives, no one directly involved in the waste exposed by KING 5 has been held personally responsible for their actions so far.

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