Investigators: Sweet deal in the San Juans for some ferry workers

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on June 8, 2010 at 10:02 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 9 at 9:26 AM

The state’s Transportation Commission has halted a planned increase on ferry fares after the KING 5 Investigators exposed millions of dollars of waste at the financially unstable Washington State Ferries over the last three months. 

Now, KING-TV has uncovered another example of taxpayer money flowing overboard, collected by a group of ferry employees who work in the scenic San Juan Islands.

The San Juans are considered by many to be the jewel of the Northwest. But KING-TV has discovered this jewel is more like a treasure chest for members of one boat’s engine room-the ferry Evergreen State. The crew has collected costly perks for years, doled out by the state ferry system.

The Evergreen State is stationed full time in the San Juans. The boat does not make trips to the mainland. It shuttles locals and tourists between the islands. When not making runs, it is tied up at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

We've found the boat’s engine crew --12 men total -- collects three-and-a-half hours of travel pay every single day to ride a ferry to and from their job in the islands - a San Juan Special.

In 2009 alone, taxpayers picked up a $200,000 tab for the crew's travel pay. They’ve been earning the extra money for decades.

Travel time pay has been a bonanza for Mike Fagernes who is the top engineer of the Evergreen State. His title is Staff Chief Engineer. The pay added an average of $25,000 to his salary year after year. 

2007 was a banner year for Fagernes. He more than doubled his salary. That year his boat worked in the San Juans for six months and was out of service, getting repairs at maintenance yards, for the other six months. He saw his base pay of $81,000 explode with travel time, overtime and other extras to $183,000. 

"The really troublesome thing is: Who's minding the store? Who is watching over this thing for us as taxpayers? That's the bottom line here,” said Ed Sutton, chair of the Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) tasked with making recommendations on  ferry fare increases to the Washington State Transportation Commission.

"It’s apparent that at some level of management the ball has been dropped,” said Sutton.

After KING-TV requested public records about the multi-million dollar San Juan travel expense, State Ferries Director David Moseley started looking at ways to get rid of it.

"There’s no question, Susannah, you’ve shown some light on past practices that we need to look at," said Moseley. "I think we're looking for ways to cut that cost. I know that for sure, that's exactly why we're looking at these options. Is there a way to cut those costs? That's what we're trying to look at."

The San Juan Special offers more than travel time pay. It includes a private water taxi for the engineers and their assistants during high season, when a ferry isn’t available to get the crew to the islands in time for their shift to begin. The water taxi costs about $30,000 every summer.

The special comes with a home away from home and free meals as well, in case crew members don’t want to take the ferry home and opt instead to stay overnight in the San Juans. The state pays for a two-bedroom home and a condo with a view. Two different residences are paid for because maritime tradition calls for separate sleeping quarters for engineers and their assistants.

The two properties cost taxpayers about $40,000 a year in rent.

"That's way excessive. Why would you do that at all? Why is that an option?” asked Sutton.

The KING 5 Investigators looked into that. Years ago ferry managers chose Anacortes as the home-terminal for the engine room employees who work full-time, 24 miles away, in the San Juans.

As per the Maritime Employees Beneficial Association (MEBA) union contract, those employees get travel pay because they work away from their home-base of Anacortes.

But another section of the contract clearly shows it is management’s decision where home-terminals are assigned for the crews.

The ferry system has every right to change the terminal to Friday Harbor, where the crew works, which would eliminate the travel cost. The only condition is that State Ferries must give the union two weeks’ notice of the change.

Other ferry employees who work in the San Juans - the Captains, Mates and deckhands - don’t get paid to travel to and from work in islands. Their home-terminal is Friday Harbor.

But until now, no one's looked at that option for the engine room.

We asked Moseley if he was frustrated that a TV station, as opposed to his own vessel maintenance managers, is instigating cost-saving measures such as this one.

"I'm holding them (the managers) accountable to making these types of changes as we move forward,” said Moseley.

Over the years the San Juan Special has been good to Chief Engineer Fagernes. Since the year 2000, he's collected nearly $700,000 over and above his base pay in travel time, overtime, and comp time.

"People that are working hard every day, trying to make ends meet and they read stuff like this, they're not happy. They're very, very unhappy," said Sutton.

After seeing the KING 5 "Waste on the Water" reports, and hearing about the San Juan Special, he's not voting to raise fares anytime in the near future.

"How could I go to my neighbor and say, you know, you've been reading about this stuff in the paper, but by the way, they want more. I don't think that's fair," said Sutton.

Ferries Director David Moseley says they've recently looked at the state-paid housing in the San Juans and decided they don't need both properties.

Last week they terminated the lease on the condo, which will save the state about $18,000 a year.

State Ferries Director David Moseley encourages anyone with information involving waste or other problems in the state ferry system to contact him directly via e-mail:
moseleyd@wsdot.wa.gov
 

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