Audit Finds North Highline Fire Commissioners Dispensed Financial Favors
In 2006, North Highline Fire Department (District 11) commissioners gave then-Chief Russ Pritchard a 57 percent raise – increasing his salary to almost $200,000 – in a pre-retirement package.
Not only did that short-term raise spark outrage among critics within the district, it also set Pritchard up for handsome payments over the long-term when he retired a few months later.
But, according to a just-released Citizen Hotline Report (download PDF here) by State Auditor Brian Sonntag, extra-ordinary financial favors for some fire district employees did not end there.
A training secretary – who is also the wife of a district commissioner – received a larger-than-usual retirement package, and a firefighter has received an excessive amout of family leave.
The commissioners responded to the auditor’s findings, stating that they disagree “with the conclusions both express and implied.”
However, “the Board does recognize that it needs to do a better job of defining and managing the employment relationships that it has with its management employees to avoid the situations addressed by the report.”
North Highline Unincorporated Area Council member Liz Giba told KOMO News on Dec. 20 that fire district commissioners make too many decisions out of the public spotlight.??”We have three people who are sitting there making life and death decisions, and it doesn’t seem like they’re getting a handle around all the issues,” Giba said.
The Auditor’s Office investigated and reported on three citizen complaints.
This involved an alleged conflict of interest between Pritchard, when he was chief, and an unidentified fire commissioner. Pritchard was also a local water district commissioner – and the water district’s manager was also a North Highline Fire District commissioner.
“We were unable to substantiate a legal conflict of interest,” the auditor’s report says.
But, it continues, their investigation found that the fire district commissioners gave Pritchard a 57.5 percent pay raise – to $198,000 a year – just three months before his retirement on Dec. 31, 2006.
“One of the primary factors used as a basis for calculating the Chief’s retirement salary benefit was his base salary at the time of retirement,” the report notes. “The former chief is now being paid more in retirement than he was paid in salary three months prior to retiring.”
The Pritchard settlement had a second impact on fire district finances as well.
When Scott LaVielle was promoted to chief in early 2007, he became beneficiary of a new baseline annual salary for the position of $153,396. Before Pritchard got his raise, the baseline salary had been $119,676.
LaVielle left the North Highline Fire Department at the end of February, as part of a cost-cutting package agreed to by district commissioners, with a severance package of approximately $300,000.
“The District did not document or support the public purpose or District benefit for these actions,” the auditor’s report continues. “It appears the primary beneficiary of these actions was the former Chief.
“Due to the Department of Retirement System’s previous interest in these actions, we will be forwarding the results of this investigation.”
This involved the severance package given to Sharon Alishokis, the fire district’s training secretary and the wife of district Commissioner Wayne Alishokis, when her position was eliminated in a cost-cutting move on Dec. 21, 2009.
Commissioners approved a seven-month severance package of $38,814, including accrued vacation and sick leave, and paid it early this year.
But, the auditor found, “Severance pay is not to exceed one month’s salary. The District’s severance payment to the former Training Secretary did not follow the District’s policy…. the District did not document [that] the employee had reasonable claims, or that any claim would be as large as this severance payment amount.”
This involves a district firefighter receiving time off under the Family Medical Leave Act that he may not have been entitled to.
“District officials granted a firefighter 768 hours of paid time off in 2008 and 792 hours of paid time off in 2009 to care for a family member,” the report says.
“By comparison, other firefighters represented by the same collective bargaining unit are allowed only 72 hours of sick leave annually to care for a family member and can only accumulate a maximum of 1,350 hours sick leave….”
“The District has allowed this employee to take an unlimited amount of paid time off which may not represent a reasonable accommodation as intended by the state law,” the report concludes.
Despite these generous payments and accommodations, the North Highline Fire District has also eliminated its positions for training officer and fire inspector this year, has not filled three firefighter positions, and does not always have personnel on duty to staff its Medic I ambulance.