Used mobile home turns into fire-district fiasco
Buying and moving a used mobile home where some rural firefighters outside of Enumclaw could sleep over and respond quickly to an emergency — it seemed like a good idea ... at first.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the beginning, no one thought it would be so hard to move the big blue box eight miles up the road.
Yes, the box was a home, complete with HUD number, but the box was also made to be mobile, hence its vehicle registration.
To Joe Clow, chief of a rural fire-protection district based in Enumclaw, the mobile home — a 2006 Silvercrest Discovery, 1,500 square feet, a double-wide that could be cut in two, wheeled along, reassembled — offered a solution to a pressing problem. Worried about slow response times, he wanted to establish sleeping quarters for firefighters at a remote station.
His idea was: Buy a used mobile, move it there, move in. He figured this would be fast (three, four months tops), cheap (as little as $130,000 — with the home's purchase price included) and easy ("We're just moving it off the lot. That happens every day.").
But the move started with a what-were-they-thinking misstep — buying the home from the wife of an elected official who oversees the district — and went sideways from there. Along the way, the project became an emblem for the travails of Washington's fire-protection districts, which have been singled out by the State Auditor's Office for questionable management, and also an example of the hurdles presented by King County's bureaucracy.
Consider this one number: The engineering company that planned the home's move — again, eight miles up the road — racked up 1,748 miles in travel expenses on the project, for which taxpayers were billed. If you started from Enumclaw and drove east, 1,748 miles would just about get you to Des Moines, Iowa.
In the end, the project wasn't fast, it wasn't cheap, it wasn't easy. It was a regrettable decision that rolled into a $300,000-plus farce.
"We did not anticipate how big this thing was going to get," Clow says.
Option 1 or option 2?
The discussion lasted only a few minutes. Most striking was what wasn't said.
On April 12, 2010, Clow met with the three commissioners elected to oversee King County Fire Protection District No. 28. All three were active or retired firefighters from nearby departments.
Clow, a former fire chief in Wisconsin and New Hampshire, had become Enumclaw's fire chief in August 2009. At the time, Enumclaw's department was run jointly by the city and District No. 28. Clow's authority encompassed Enumclaw and about 90 square miles of unincorporated county around it.
Not long after Clow's arrival, a house caught fire in Cumberland, a town about seven miles northeast. The fire engine, leaving from Enumclaw, took 15 minutes to get there. No one was hurt — the family was out of town — but the response alarmed Clow. An acceptable time would have been four to six minutes. The chief decided the fire station in Cumberland needed sleeping quarters for round-the-clock staffing. He wanted this done — pronto.
Clow and his staff did some research and, at the April meeting, offered the commissioners options.
Option 1: A home-construction company had offered to build a custom bunkhouse at the station: eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, big kitchen, big community room. With a septic system, the cost would probably be around $225,000.
Option 2: "The Hannity family has a modular home for sale," Clow told the commissioners. No one asked who Hannity was. There was no need. Dave Hannity was sitting right there, as chairman of the three-commissioner board.
The home could be moved to the site and modified to sleep six, Clow said. Purchase price: $85,000. Total cost — with septic, moving expenses, installation — would probably "be in the ballpark of between $130,000 and $150,000," Clow said.
Clow recommended going with the Hannity home, saying it would be cheaper. Commissioner Ryan Terhune made the motion. Commissioner Chris Ingham seconded. Both said aye. (Hannity abstained.) And that was it. Nothing was said about the conflict of interest. Nothing was said about maybe needing to solicit bids for a mobile home, to keep costs down.
"OK," Clow said, "the next thing is ... the mini-pumper."
Failing the auditor's test
The Washington State Auditor's Office inspects government agencies to see if they're complying with state laws and regulations.
In the past 10 years, fire-protection districts have been cited at least 117 times for screwing up, according to a review of the office's audits.
Fire-protection districts trace to the 1930s and allow unincorporated areas — and the occasional city, annexed in — to share resources in fighting fires and providing emergency aid. Washington state now has about 375 districts, funded mostly through property taxes.
In buying Hannity's home without soliciting other offers, King County District No. 28 violated competitive-bidding laws. Statewide, that has happened at least 37 times with fire-protection districts, audits show.
An audit released last year of Whatcom County District No. 18 described a parade of errors: An employee began regrading district property without getting board approval, or rounding up permits, or soliciting bids. He hired two uninsured workers. Land slid into a lake, resulting in fines from the county and the state. The district declared an emergency and hired a company to repair the damage — but again, without following the law on soliciting bids.
Since 2002, the Auditor's Office has written up fire districts at least 41 times for lacking financial controls and at least 22 times for misusing funds.
In Pierce County, a district employee — who, on the side, installed residential sprinkler systems — purchased, with taxpayer money, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of sprinkler equipment that could not be located by auditors. (He was fired.) In Grant County, a district paid the daughter of the district board's chairman $13,400 to attend all board meetings and keep the minutes. But the Auditor's Office discovered no meetings had been held. The minutes supplied to the auditors had been falsified.
Earlier this year, the auditor's website featured a special alert on the dangers of fraud in fire-protection districts, with a hotline number for whistle-blowers. "Stop Fraud Before You Get Burned," the site said. In Pierce County, a district secretary embezzled more than $843,000, using fictitious vendors, altered voucher registers and checks written to herself, auditors found. In Jefferson County, a district secretary misappropriated at least $77,000, using district credit cards for cash advances at a casino and a trip to the Space Needle, an audit found.
The Auditor's Office has a planning guide for staff reviewing fire districts. This guide attributes the "high-risk nature" of districts to inadequate controls and a lack of sophistication. District staffs tend to be small, with high turnover. Knowledge of the applicable laws is "usually not passed down," the guide says.
"You sit and you wait"
When Joe Clow was fire chief in Bedford, N.H., his department handled building permits. The typical turnaround was less than seven days.
So he wasn't prepared for King County — "not in any way, shape or form" — where building permits were issued by the Department of Development and Environmental Services, or DDES, an agency that has since changed its name to the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review, or DPER, as part of an overhaul to make the agency more "customer friendly." Clow says he went there four times, pursuing a permit for the sleeping quarters: "You go there and you sit and you wait."
King County's bureaucracy baffled the district's employees. They couldn't figure out what taxes to pay, where to pay them, or how to transfer the home's title. Did they need a residential permit? A commercial permit? (The former, they were told. Then they were told the latter.) The district's secretary wrote a long memo listing the county fiefdoms they were trying to navigate (DDES, Health, Licensing, Assessments, Treasury ... ): "When you call one agency, they tell you to call the second agency, who then tell you that you need to speak with the first agency, and neither knows what is going on."
There were signs this wouldn't be easy. The district's contacts included a state employee with a title so long it had two ampersands: "Contract Release Specialist, Auditor 4, Labor & Industries — Detection & Tracking Unit." The project's email chain produced gems like this: "We also recommend waiting a week to authorize the 'Expedited Review.' "
Clow met with King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn. "I said, 'I have an issue with one of your county departments.' And he said, 'Let me guess.' " Did Dunn guess DDES? "Yes he did — and without thinking about it for a very long time."
The district hired two engineers — one to design a new septic system for the Cumberland station and sleeping quarters, and a second, Dave Hedges, to plan out the mobile home's move. For Hedges' work, the projected budget was $12,500.
But district officials became unhappy with the first engineer's work and asked Hedges to take over the septic design, too. The first engineer, told he was out, sent Hedges an email: "Try not to charge the county too much as we are all tax payers."
With spring came hope. In April 2011, the county's historic-preservation officials determined the district's project raised no issues with them. The news circulated by email. One of Hedges' assistants: "Yea!!!" One of Clow's assistants: [a happy face]. Clow: "Yippee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
On May 26, 2011 — nearly 14 months after the district's commissioners voted for the mobile-home project — the county issued a building permit.
The invoices stack up
Now the district needed someone to do the actual move — and to build the new foundation and install the septic system. The district advertised the job, expecting competing bids to roll in. But on the day for bids to be opened, the commissioners gathered and discovered ... only one — a $108,000 bid, from Lake Tapps Construction, that was $24,000 higher than anticipated.
The commissioners accepted the bid and later upped Lake Tapps' pay to about $115,000, to account for additional work. That was the big-ticket expense, but others piled up, including the $200-per-hour lawyer who reviewed contractual documents and apprised the district that on page 3 "that should be 'indicated' and not 'indicted.' "
As the project lurched along, the district asked Hedges — the engineer initially expected to cost $12,500 — to assume a larger management role. "This kind of was the job from hell," Hedges says. His firm's work expanded, week after week, and the district kept approving his invoices, month after month.
In the end, his firm racked up 592 hours — all to design and coordinate the move, not execute it. Hedges' invoices listed the services of one person after another: principal engineer ($173.39 an hour); project engineer ($101.37 an hour); accountant ($83.95 an hour); party chief ($80.60 an hour, and not what it sounds like — a party chief runs a survey crew); and chain man ($46.50 an hour). This is a partial list. Throw in the 1,748 miles (59 cents per mile), the 5,160 black-and-white photocopies, the 898 color copies and assorted other expenses, and Hedges' total bill came to $68,558.
On Oct. 1, 2011 — a year and a half after the project started — the move was completed. Firefighters moved in.
The district filed a notice-of-completion form with three state agencies. One kicked the form back, saying the district had made the mistake of using an acronym.
Adding up the costs
For the officials at District No. 28, the fallout from the mobile-home project has been never-ending.
In late 2010, the State Auditor's Office concluded the home's purchase was a conflict of interest and violated competitive-bidding laws. Because it took so long to transfer the title and move the home, the double-wide remained in a mobile-home park, racking up lot fees and utility costs. Hannity, the district's chairman, made those payments and was reimbursed by the district. "A gift of public funds," the auditor's report called this. In time, those reimbursements reached $6,251, according to the district's numbers.
"If we've made some mistakes, we've made some mistakes. But they were righteous mistakes; they weren't made on purpose," Hannity says.
A local website, Enumclaw Patch, wrote about the audit, and three area businessmen began voicing objections about the district's spending.
In May, those three men met with Hedges and a Lake Tapps Construction representative at the Enumclaw fire station. Clow moderated the sit-down. The three men complained of government waste — "out of control ... can't go on like this" — and fired questions: The home's assessed value was $55,000. Why did the district pay $85,000? And why did Hedges get paid so much more than the $12,500 he first estimated?
The others answered: The home was once on the market for $115,000. (The fire district "got a screaming good deal," Hannity would say later.) And Hedges kept getting asked to provide additional services. "The coordination with King County became an absolute nightmare," Hedges told the three men.
Clow told the questioners: "You're asking me, if we could go back and do it all over again, would we do it different? Maybe." (Later, asked the same by The Seattle Times, he upgraded this to "probably.")
But at meeting's end, there was no meeting of the minds. One of the questioners, Mike Qualls, a financial planner, addressed the two men who worked on the mobile-home project. "I don't know if we can get money back from you two, but shame on you for what you did. Especially you," Qualls said, looking at Hedges.
Since then, the hard feelings have persisted. Qualls says that for what the district spent, "I could have built you a castle." Hannity hears the criticism and says, "I've had it up to my ears," calling the claims "crapola." Hedges, an engineer for about 40 years, says that for delay and expense, no jurisdiction compares with King County. (He tells this story: Once, on another project, he owed $8 for some copies. It took four DDES employees — huddling for 45 minutes — to take his money. And he was paying cash.)
So how much did the whole project cost? Total up the home's purchase price, the lot fees and utilities, the engineering costs, the county fees and permits, the home's relocation and installation, and the costs of furnishing the place, and you get $309,794.37.
The criticism from Qualls and the other businessmen has extended to a raise Clow received from Hannity and the other commissioners. In 2011 — the year after the district bought the Hannity family's mobile home — Clow's annual salary and benefits went from $140,677 to $180,627. Clow had been head of the Enumclaw Fire Department, but in 2010 Enumclaw was annexed into District No. 28, so Clow went from a municipal chief to a district one. The district has 19 career employees and about 35 volunteers.
Hannity says the commissioners compared Clow's salary with those of other fire chiefs and decided a raise was in order: "He has no assistant chiefs, he has no battalion chiefs, he is a one-man band."
This year, the district hired an outside consultant — another engineer — to review Hedges' invoices. This consultant said Hedges' billings appeared to be "in line" with industry standards. For this review, the consultant billed the district $525.
The State Auditor's Office is preparing another report, one that will examine aspects of the mobile-home project that go beyond its purchase. That report is expected to be released within the next few months.
And then came a wind ...
As with any new home, the sleeping quarters at the Cumberland station took some getting used to.
One day the firefighters lost their satellite channels, thanks to an overdue payment. Another day their water heater quit. ("That happens," Clow says.) A firefighter tried calling a lieutenant's cellphone, seeking guidance, only to learn the landline wouldn't allow long-distance calls. That posed a serious problem: Higher-ups, the chief included, had cellphones with a different area code.
Then, over the New Year's holiday, wind blew off part of the home's roof.
The following Tuesday, when Clow informed the commissioners, Chairman Hannity said it was "nobody's fault." He attributed the damage to "building specs," saying Cumberland had stronger winds than the town where the home had been manufactured. "So that's my two cents' worth," he said.
The district spent $735 for emergency repairs and $8,536 for a new shingle roof. They were starting the new year, Clow told the commissioners, "with a pretty sizable hit."
But this time, the district caught a break. Insurance picked up the bill — minus the $1,000 deductible.
Database reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story. Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or firstname.lastname@example.org