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Originally published December 8, 2010 at 6:23 PM | Page modified December 8, 2010 at 7:16 PM

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Auditor: Washington state Parks Commission wasted millions of dollars on project

The state Parks and Recreation Commission wasted millions of dollars on water and sewer work at Fort Flagler State Park near Port Townsend, State Auditor Brian Sonntag says.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — The state Parks and Recreation Commission wasted millions of dollars on water and sewer work at Fort Flagler State Park near Port Townsend, State Auditor Brian Sonntag says.

Sonntag's office released an investigative report this week that says the commission, over a period of several years, ended up spending more than $7 million for work that should have cost much less.

"These are the kinds of things that lead to public distrust and unrest," Sonntag said. "Who in the world is going to vote for any kind of tax increase or additional tax authority if they don't trust you to use what you have now?"

The Parks Commission disagrees with some assertions in the audit, noting that the work evolved over time from a relatively small $140,000 job to replace a recreational-vehicle sewage dump and drain field to a multimillion project to replace the park's entire water and sewer system.

But Virginia Painter, a spokeswoman for the commission, acknowledged that "we didn't do a job to the standard we would like to do."

The Parks Commission acknowledges that some money was wasted, but it's not clear how much, Painter said.

The 784-acre park sits on a high bluff overlooking Puget Sound. It's surrounded on three sides by saltwater shoreline, and many of the 19th century fort's buildings remain.

Sonntag released a whistle-blower report that outlines a series of actions taken at the state park over a decade, between 2000 and 2009.

The auditor's office found, in part, that "the Commission did not monitor or enforce terms of the contracts, did not hold contractors liable for failed systems ... authorized change orders that appeared to be outside the scope of the original project and failed to ensure a construction contractor met safety requirements."

Sonntag said it's one of the most egregious cases of wasteful spending his office has run across.

Painter said her agency has had a difficult time reconstructing what happened because the people involved no longer work there.

Sonntag's report and a timeline prepared by the Parks Commission shows that the problems began after a dump and drain field at the park failed in 2000. The park paid a contractor to make repairs, but the job was never completed. It's not clear why.

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The project was then expanded to replace not only the dump and drain field, but the entire water and sewer system in the historic section of the park. The system was built in the 1950s and was not performing well.

The agency paid about $1.4 million for the design and construction. The work was completed in 2005, but the system failed later that year.

It's not clear what went wrong, but Painter said the system was not put in by someone certified to install it. Also a park employee agreed to let the installer deviate from the approved design. Because the design was changed with park approval, the agency did not go after the construction company to recoup money spent on the failed system.

The park spent several hundred thousand dollars over a period of years to pump more than 2 million gallons of sewage from holding tanks while all this was going on.

In 2006, the agency paid the same consultant who designed the previous system $1.3 million to design a new, larger treatment system for the entire park, Painter said. A different contractor was paid $3.2 million to build the system, which was completed in 2009 and is still running today.

Painter said the Parks Commission recognizes it could have done a better job overseeing the projects and is revamping the way it handles contracts to help prevent future problems.

"If you attend to your business properly at every step, the chances are better you are going to find out things that you needed to know and are going to be more economical by the time you get to the end," she said. "We are certainly culpable."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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