SEATTLE-- One of government's greatest powers is the ability to seize your property. It s called exercising the power of eminent domain.At times the process is necessary for the public good, such as when the state needs to build a new bridge or highway.
Five years ago the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) made promises to small business owners who were being displaced when their properties were needed to build new ramps on I-405 through Bellevue.
Patrece Banks was one of the property owners who needed to pack up. She had a start-up company called Invisible Caregiver Innovation, which developed and sold bed safety devices for the elderly and disabled. Banks was stunned to hear her property was being seized, but the state paid a fair price for it and, as is required by state and federal regulations, they promised they d help her relocate. It would be a smooth transition.
They continually reassured you that we were here to help you to make sure that you as a business owner doesn t have any hardship and that you re able to continue working in your business just like you are now, said Banks.
Misha Anderson had to move as well. She s a registered nurse who owned a successful high-tech spa. WSDOT representatives told her not to worry: federal and state law mandated she get help to plan, move, and remodel a new location.
He was really saying it was totally going to be fine. He totally reassured me, said Anderson.
So the state bought and bulldozed Banks' and Anderson s buildings and several others that used to sit along I-405.
WSDOT awarded a multi-million dollar contract to an outside company, Certified Land Services, for the job of acquiring the properties and relocating everyone.
The KING 5 Investigators have obtained documents showing that before those consultants were hired, the Real Estate Services department of WSDOT had concerns. They worried the consultants didn't have enough staff or expertise for the I-405 project. It s unknown why, but those concerns were not addressed. The lead engineering firm on the I-405 expansion hired the consultants anyway.
Patrece Banks was assigned a consultant from the company who was well-paid. He earned $90.35 per hour for his expertise in getting businesses relocated. But records show he made blunders on the job by giving out bogus information.
Among other problems, he advised Banks the state wouldn t be able to pay for a sewer hook, a site survey or an environmental impact study. None of which was correct.
The same consultant was assigned to Misha Anderson s move, which was plagued with problems as well.
I ended up paying money to the city because things were done wrong. The contractor didn't get permits. The state didn't help me. I was standing in line down in Bellevue, me dealing with it, said Anderson.
The business owners found themselves running around getting bids for movers and contractors. By regulation, those were jobs the taxpayers were already paying the consultants to do.
The businesswomen were unaware of their rights.
A teary Misha Anderson said, I m getting upset about it now. I don't know. I don't want to go back there but something needs to be done. They're taking advantage of naive, ignorant people.
Patrece Banks complained over and over to the consultants and to employees in the Real Estate Services office of WSDOT. That prompted the state to ask for a federal review of her case.
The United State Department of Transportation (USDOT) reviewed documents and conducted interviews. The reviewers found the consultant didn t perform his job duties correctly.
[There were] several instances of either providing incorrect information or asking the business owner to perform actions that are supposed to be performed by the [relocation] agent, wrote the USDOT Review Team.
They also found WSDOT didn t provide adequate oversight of the consultant.
Using a consultant to perform acquisition and relocation services does not absolve WSDOT from their oversight responsibilities, wrote the reviewers.
The consultants weren't following up, they weren't helping me. [They] wouldn't return phone calls, said Anderson. It was so disorganized and I trusted them and thought they ve done it before, they ve been doing it for years.
Mike Palazzo is the Director of Real Estate Services for WSDOT. He says 155 people were relocated for the I-405 improvement project and only a handful complained. He also acknowledged that exercising the power of eminent domain is never easy.
That's a difficult situation for everybody. [The consultants] are going in, working with someone who doesn't want to move, and you're being told what to do. So, it's as serious as it can be, said Palazzo.
The consultants were also in charge of submitting bills to WSDOT from moving and construction companies working on the relocations. But Patrece Banks came across a problem for taxpayers: inaccurate and unreasonable bills turned infrom her contractor, which WSDOT paid.
Nobody questioned anything. All they cared about was paying and getting rid of me, said Banks.
KING 5 went through dozens of receipts and invoices from the remodel. The reporters found receipts showing the contractor charged the state for a paint sprayer, roller covers, a paint tray and other paint-related items.
That s a problem. The company didn t do any painting on the job.
The contractor also charged the state $150 for two hours of time to get those few supplies at Home Depot in Bellevue.
According to Mapquest, that trip should taketwo minutes each way.
It is my money, it is our money. I'm a taxpayer, said Banks. It s still our money and I seemed to be the only one who was concerned with it.
The KING 5 Investigators showed some of the documentation to Palazzo. He said his office audits invoices and that being good stewards of taxpayer dollars is a top priority.
We're at that sustained success level where we want to be looking for improvements and if these are examples of things that need attention I need to find out what kind of attention was given them, said Palazzo.
What happened to the relocated businesses? Patrece banks spent so much time trying to make the relocation happen she stopped paying attention to her company and lost it.
When you re a small business it s you. And you re supposed to be running your company. That s why the consultants are there. That s what they tell you they re there for. It affected every part of my life, said Banks.
Misha Anderson lost her spa business as well. She gave up after suffering a nervous breakdown.
That's when my husband said, 'Forget it, it's draining you, it's sucking you. You're not making a profit anymore. You can barely keep your head above water.' He said, 'You've got to walk,' said Anderson. Oh my God, this is the end. The reality hit me that I m losing everything I ve worked for forten years.
An executive with the consultanting firm, Certified Land Services (CLS), said they performed well on the project.
We treat all displacees fairly and the same. We believe it is our job as relocation agents to be the representative of the agency and the advocate for the displacee, and we performed those services in the Banks (case) and all other transactions on this project, said Regina Raichart of CLS.
Palazzo says WSDOT goes above and beyond federal requirements regarding relocations of businesses. The federal government mandates businesses are to be allowed $10,000 for relocation expenses. The State of Washington allows $50,000.
This is a stellar program, it s a model, said Palazzo.
Misha Anderson recently opened up a new spa in Woodinville called Spa Aesthetique. Patrece Banks hasn t opened another business since folding her bed safety company.
After the USDOT Compliance Review of the project, federal officials mandated that WSDOT adopt new policies to address oversight shortcomings in the relocation process. Federal dollars for the I-405 project were at stake if changes weren t made.
A federal official laid out the mandate in a letter to Paula Hammond, the Washington State Secretary of Transportation, dated March 25, 2009.
(The Federal Highway Administration) FHWA must receive assurance from WSDOT that procedures describing WSDOT s oversight responsibilities for advisory services required by (federal regulations) will be drafted and provided to FHWA for review within 30 days of the finalization of this review, wrote the USDOT official.
WSDOT has made dozens of changes and the federal dollars were received.
At least it s making a difference already, but there s a lot more that needs to be done, said Banks.
For more information on WSDOT's relocation assistance, click here.