If you've ever paid to ride a ferry, you know it's expensive business. And the most expensive part of this business is paying the employees.
The KING 5 Investigators have found staff chief engineers consistently make the most of all Washington State Ferries employees.
There is one staff chief engineer assigned to each boat. They’re responsible for the engine room located below deck.
KING 5 obtained 10 years of payroll data for all those top engineers and found it's been a decadent decade for these fortunate few.
More than a dozen engineers made more than our state's top leaders in some years, more than Chief Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen, more than the Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond and State Ferries Director David Moseley. Even more than Governor Chris Gregoire.
That didn’t sit well with ferry riders.
"That's ridiculous, it doesn't make any sense,” said one rider.
"Government waste. Somebody needs to be held accountable for that,” said another.
Who made the most of the staff chief engineers over the last decade?
Mike Fagernes of the ferry Evergreen State.
He collected nearly $700,000 above his base pay in overtime, travel time and other extras since the year 2000.
The former staff chief of the Kaleetan, Duke Waters, raked in $585,000 above his base pay.
The Chelan’s top engineer, Tom Fraczak, earned more than a half-million dollars extra over the last 10 years.
"We fight every day for our kids and our families and then this type of situation goes on and it's just really sad to see that," said a ferry rider.
Forty men have held the position of Staff Chief Engineer since the year 2000. The KING 5 Investigators added up how much the group made above their base salaries since that time. The number? Nearly $10 million.
"That number itself is huge, but what it represents and what they money could be going towards, especially in today’s economy, it’s maddening," said a ferry rider.
Some overtime is not only expected in running a big ferry system, it's essential. It’s part of the cost of doing business. But what the KING 5 Investigators found isn't a fluke - one or two busy years. They found a pattern of massive overtime every year for the last ten. That's called institutionalized overtime.
Ardent conservative Senator Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, is known as a budget hawk.
"It sounds more like institutionalized corruption to me. I mean that's the word. You're gaming the system. You're taking advantage of the system. Corruption is really defined by taking advantage and doing technically what is not the right way to operate, so it’s corruptive in nature in my opinion,” said Zarelli.
All ferry engineers work 12 hours a day - one week on followed by one week off.
By looking at hundreds of handwritten time sheets, KING-TV found many staff chief engineers aren't relaxing on their days off - they’re working. Working for double and sometime triple time pay. As per their union contract, if they work 5 minutes or 5 hours on a day off, it's an automatic 8 hours of overtime.
"They are some of the hardest working state employees around," said Karol Kingery, Branch Agent of MEBA, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, which represents the staff chiefs. "They are simply doing what management has known about for years. They’re working endless hours to make sure the boats are as safe as possible. And these are the safest vessels you’ll find."
Secretary Hammond says historically the staff chiefs have taken complete ownership of the boats, which could account for a lot of the overtime. But she now realizes they need to find ways to reduce those costs, such as assigning the alternate staff chief or another chief engineer to do a lot of the work on straight time.
"They feel like it's their head that would roll if something breaks down out of negligence or something else. I like that ethic but on the other hand we have to try to minimize costs where we can”, said Hammond.
KING 5 also found engineers writing that they've been "called in" for the extra work.
For example, in 2008 the staff chief engineer of the ferry Wenatchee, Doug Phillips, wrote he was called in from a day off 72 times. But that's not quite accurate. The staff chief engineers typically call themselves in, for self-assigned overtime.
Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond didn't know that until KING reporter Susannah Frame told her about it last month.
"I've never heard this explained to me this way. This is good information for me," Hammond said on May 12.
After the interview with Frame, she looked into it.
"It sounds like you asked hard questions, like who's approving this overtime. And what was the answer?" asked Frame.
"They were not good answers," said Hammond last week.
The chief engineers aren't sneaking around to make extra cash. Managers sign off on every timesheet. Director of Vessel Maintenance Paul Brodeur is ultimately responsible.
"There have been people who've said heads should roll. You should fire somebody. You should fire a bunch of somebodies. As a manager I can't fire anybody until I know the facts and I need cause," said Hammond.
Secretary Hammond says she's not firing anyone for what happened in the past because she's not sure the managers knew it was their job to question overtime and cut costs.
"My question on the management team is: What did you think your job was? Were you ever told that was a part of your responsibility?" said Hammond.
"That's ridiculous,” said Mike Ennis, Director of Transportation at the Washington Policy Center. "If you work in the public sector you should know that one of your primary jobs, especially as a manager, especially if you control a budget, is to contain costs."
"This is institutional, clearly, if it's been going on this long and there ought to be consequences for it. The taxpayers really got stuck," said Sen. Zarelli.
Earlier this week, Governor Gregoire responded to the KING 5 "Waste on the Water" investigation. She seemed to dismiss our findings because most of what’s been reported didn’t include state workers breaking the law.
But other state leaders are taking what’s been exposed seriously. Just this week, an 11-page document was released to KING 5. It’s a new Ferries Division Overtime Policy. It’s the first policy of this type the ferry system has had in 50 years of doing business.
The spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said the new policy is a direct result of the KING 5 investigation and that they are hoping it will save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Secretary Hammond is also in the process of hiring a consultant to better understand the ferry system's management culture in an effort to help the managers reduce costs. The consultants' fee is expected to cost less than $15,000.
Washington State Ferries also released overtime statistics to KING 5, which show that overall, overtime has been reduced in the last two years. In 2007, overtime paid to employees who work on the ferry decks and below deck in the engine rooms totaled $6.6 million. That number was reduced in 2009 to $5.6 million.