SEATTLE - Some workers in the cash-strapped ferry system are collecting thousands of dollars to drive to and from work, simply because their job is deemed a "special project."
Special projects at the Washington State Ferries are important assignments which keep boats moving and passengers safe. The projects include work such as training deck hands, developing vessel maintenance programs, and making sure engineers are up to speed on the latest technologies.
Workers on special projects, about 40 ferry employees at any given time, usually have to travel away from their home terminal to their assignment. For the inconvenience, the state pays their travel time and mileage to drive or ride a ferry to and from work to get the job done.
Brian Twietmeyer has to shove off from his home terminal of Kingston and travel all the way to an office building in downtown Seattle for his special project. It’s a 24 mile round trip every day. His job is to make sure ferry deck hands are properly trained by developing their educational programs.
Last year, Twietmeyer made roughly $98,000 in wages. He earned an additional $26,000 for travel and mileage to get to and from the office. The travel benefit brought his total pay to $124,000 in 2009.
Many people would define a special project as something out of the ordinary; a job with a beginning and an end that lasts a few months or so. KING 5 has found the ferry system has a loose definition of special project. In some cases, they last 10 to 15 years. And as long as a job is slated a special project, taxpayers are funding the perks that go along with them.
Twietmeyer's been developing those deck hand training programs since 1999. For the last 12 years, he's been paid to travel to and from the same office five days a week. Based on available data obtained from the ferry system through a public records disclosure request, the KING 5 Investigators estimate Twietmeyer’s been paid about $220,000 in travel time and mileage over the years.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, sits on the Transportation Committee, which is painfully aware of the ferry system's dire financial picture. It’s facing a $1 billion shortfall over the next 15 years.
"When you've been doing something for 12 years, that's not a special assignment, that's an employee," said King. "We can't continue to pay the kinds of money you've shown me here today unless there's truly justification to do it, and on face value, it doesn’t appear that there would be."
Some workers have collected even more. Bill Hughes is a top-rated radar specialist. His job is to develop new radar technology and training programs. His work has been deemed a special project for the last 15 years.
Since 1995 the state's paid him for traveling to and from his home base in Bremerton. KING 5 estimates Hughes has received $450,000 in travel time and mileage over the years.
Why would some jobs be deemed a special project for so long, netting the workers lucrative benefits? Ferry executives tell us union contracts have historically been interpreted to mean those workers are entitled to the job classification and the travel perks.
But because of our investigation, that could be changing.
“Our goal will be to eliminate travel time and mileage for the two unions who currently have that in their contract," said David Moseley, Assistant Secretary for Washington State Ferries.
Moseley’s been running the ferry system for just two years. He said his first priorities were to cut out administrative overhead and millions of dollars in consultant contracts. Moseley said he wasn’t aware of the long-standing perks for special project employees until KING 5 started asking questions.
"The reality is your public disclosure request focused me on this issue," said Moseley.
The ferry employee who’s made the most through special projects is Michael O’Connor. He is highly skilled with a big job of preparing and updating dozens of technical training and operational manuals for the ferry system.
O'Connor's been traveling from his home base in Anacortes to a regional ferry office in Everett to work on this special project for 12 years. Last year, in time and mileage alone, he made nearly $50,000. Over the years, KING 5 estimates that benefit has added up to about $480,000; all that money for him to drive everyday to and from the exact same office.
Asst. Secretary Moseley says he should held accountable.
"I'm in charge of the ferry system. We have to fix this problem and we will,” said Moseley. “We must find a way to provide this important work cheaper, and we will."
KING 5 tried several times to reach the special project employees through their union chiefs, but calls and e-mails were not returned.