Special meeting set to discuss personnel policies

FireBoxBy Ann McCreary

After meeting in an executive session, Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners indicated a contract that provides two years of paid leave to former Fire Chief Don Waller is likely to remain in place.

Commissioners spent 40 minutes in the closed-door session, during which they spoke by phone with the attorney for the district, on Monday (Feb. 8).

In comments after the executive session, Commissioner Darold Brandenburg said trying to rescind the contract could entail too many legal costs to make the effort worthwhile.

However, he said commissioners are still evaluating the paid leave agreement that was signed by commissioners in December. “It’s still in play. The conversation is not done,” he said.

At issue is a contract that grants Waller a two-year leave, during which he will be paid for 4,021 hours of vacation and sick leave, and compensation time that he accrued over 14 years of working for the fire district.

Waller announced his intention to retire at the commissioners’ December meeting and presented the contract as an addendum to his employment contract.

Waller will be compensated for the accrued time at his most recent salary rate and will retire at the end of the two-year leave, which began Jan. 1.

He will continue to draw benefits while on leave, including use of a fire district vehicle, and will respond to fire calls and continue to participate in training and maintain certifications, according to the agreement.

At the end of Waller’s two-year leave all remaining accrued benefits, including vacation and sick leave, will be paid out, according to the agreement.

Paying Waller over a two-year period would “ameliorate the financial burden of paying a one-time lump sum payment,” according to the agreement.

Commissioners decided to schedule a special meeting later this month to discuss personnel policies, including the way employees accrue leave time. “We will change policies for the future so it won’t happen again,” said Brandenburg.

The paid leave arrangement has drawn questions from citizens and from the commission’s newest member, Les Stokes, who defeated long-time commissioner Roy Reiber in November and joined the three-member board in January.

Stokes raises questions

Stokes refused to approve the January payroll at the meeting, because it included the first monthly payment of  $6,392.17 to Waller. That would total $153,412.08 over two years, and does not include other costs and benefits such as payroll taxes, retirement, insurance and the district vehicle and fuel, Stokes said.

“I can not with clear conscience vote for the full salary option,” Stokes said in a letter he submitted at the meeting for inclusion in the minutes.

Stokes said he reviewed the chief’s job description and district personnel policies and concluded that a maximum of 1,280 hours of sick leave and vacation leave could have been accrued by Waller.

He said the chief’s employment contract designates him a salaried employee and allows “relief time off for extra hours worked,” but Stokes said it’s not clear that the contract allows the chief to be paid for extra hours worked.

“I don’t see how you can come up with that many hours, that’s where my rub has been,” Stokes said after the commission meeting.

Although he doesn’t agree with it, Stokes said it appears unlikely that the paid leave agreement can be reversed.

“The more I’m looking into it its looking like the personnel policies don’t matter … the issue is the December agreement,” he said. “It’s getting to be more of a consensus that, like it or not, it might be that were stuck with it.”

The paid leave arrangement has also drawn the attention of the Washington State Auditor’s office, after a citizen hotline request asked the auditor to look into it.

Interim Chief Cody Acord said an auditor came to the fire district offices Monday to begin “a full audit on personnel time.”

Acord said the auditor collected logbooks that have been kept by employees over the years to record the hours they worked. “He’s verifying comp time used and making sure the hours match what we have in our computer,” Acord said.

The handwritten journals date back to 2002, when Waller was hired as the district’s first employee. The district adopted a computerized system last year for tracking employee hours, Acord said. The district employs five people as chief, assistant and division chiefs.

Paying the accrued time over two years saves the district a large lump sum payment and “may be the best deal for this particular situation,” said Paul Sisson, a resident who attended Monday’s meeting.

Acord said having Waller available to respond to calls helps the district meet firefighting standards, such as a requirement that while fighting structure fires a minimum of two firefighters are needed to enter the building and two firefighters are required to be outside.

To comply with requirements, it’s beneficial to have five paid employees available to respond to calls during daytime hours, when it’s often more difficult for volunteer firefighters to leave jobs to respond, Acord said.

“That’s another reason we wanted to keep Don on,” said Commissioner Jerry Palm.

“When something goes wrong around my place I want the A team to show up,” said Brandenburg. “We need to understand what level of fire protection this valley wants. At that point I think some of these things will solve themselves.”