Audit Finds North Highline Fire Commissioners Dispensed Financial Favors


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by Ralph Nichols

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.

1st Complaint
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.”

Former Fire Chief Scott LaVielle got a severance package of around $300,000.

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.”

2nd Complaint
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.”

3rd Complaint
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.

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Comments

5 Responses to “Audit Finds North Highline Fire Commissioners Dispensed Financial Favors”
  1. F-docs says:

    So basically this is theft by the commissioners. Don’t thieves have to go to jail and repay their debt to society.

    Send the thieves to jail, and make them all repay.

    What a shame, another crooked elected politician.

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  2. Coverofnight says:

    “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.”

    Can you believe this statement? Especially after reading what these people were paid for salaries and now to fund their retirement? Something’s wrong here, people, with public sector entitlements! That’s a BIG part of why state economies are in the crapper! Time to do more with less….oh wait, according to that statement above, we’re already doing that – but I bet the fire chief and commissioners are keeping those increased salaries for overseeing less personnel!

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  3. Gregory Rehmke says:

    Pension and salary abuse in the private sector should be dealt with through some kind of “claw-back” for bankrupt firms or firms bailed out by the federal government.

    Similarly, I would argue that government salaries, pay grades, and pensions should be reviewed and where they are found to be too low or too high, should be reset to proper amounts. Where salaries are found to have been pushed up arbitrarily, and pensions set too high arbitrarily, retired govt. officials should return excess amounts already received, with interest. Local, regional, and national Pension Commissions should be established to review and repair this fiscal and political time-bomb.

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  4. Steve Tichi says:

    A similar and worse situation exist in Woodinville Fire department right now. Currently the New Chief has more Admin people than he does Emergency responders. In the midst of hard Economic times. The Key is the 5 Elected Fire Commissioners who supposedly represent the public, Form special committees so they can vote on sensitive Life and Death impacting issues with out public input during so called “Executive sessions”

    It is a Blatant abuse of State Laws and does not represent the public. When someone has a emergency and they dial 911, they need help! Not more people in a office than the actual responders. This is very wrong and in such times should have the highest degree of accountability in a conservative community that has a liberal administrator not meeting the needs of the community and backed by elected commissioners that openly show disrespect to speakers during public meetings and conduct business behind close doors.

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