State auditor’s office seeks information on chief’s paid leave
By Ann McCreary
Citizens at a packed Okanogan Fire District 6 commission meeting Monday (Jan. 11) questioned a paid leave agreement for Fire Chief Don Waller that was approved last month by district commissioners.
In response to questions, commissioners said the employment agreement that gave Waller two years of paid leave was presented to them by Waller, and they had not given it to the district attorney to review before they signed it.
Under the agreement, written as an addendum to the chief’s employment contract, Waller began a two-year paid leave Jan. 1, 2016, and will retire at the end of the leave.
The contract states it is “mutually beneficial” to place Waller on paid leave, during which he will be compensated at his current salary rate and continue to draw benefits, rather than pay a “one-time lump sum payment” at his resignation for about 4,000 hours of accrued vacation and sick leave and compensation time.
Interim Chief Cody Acord, who stepped in as chief during Waller’s leave, said an auditor with the Washington State Auditor’s Office contacted the district and has requested information pertaining to the employment agreement.
“We got a citizen hotline request asking us to look at the leave situation,” said Adam Wilson, a spokesman for the auditor’s office. “We’re in the process of reviewing the concerns raised in the hotline request.”
Wilson said the next regularly scheduled audit of the fire district would be completed in 2017.
Acord said the auditor contacted the district last Friday (Jan. 8) and “mentioned he had read an article about the employment agreement” in the Methow Valley News.
“He told me they wanted to look into the hours that Don Waller had accumulated,” and requested district records that track accumulated hours, Acord said.
The auditor has also requested information about district policies regarding vacation and sick leave, and compensation time, Acord said. He said the district has written policies regarding sick leave and vacation leave but does not have a written policy regarding compensation time, although he has begun working on developing one.
Acord said Tuesday (Jan. 12) that he would provide Waller’s employment agreement to the district’s attorney, Brian Snur of Omak, to review as suggested by some people attending the district commission meeting.
The contract was approved at the commission’s last meeting before the departure of former commissioner Roy Reiber, who was defeated in the November election by Les Stokes. Monday’s meeting was the first for Stokes.
During more than an hour of sometimes-heated public comment, citizens raised a variety of questions related to the leave agreement, recordkeeping, finances, employment policies, and how the district pays for compensation time.
Charlie Ryan, a financial consultant, evaluated district finances a year ago to determine how much it could afford to borrow for a new fire station. Ryan said Monday that the district may have significant outstanding financial liabilities as a result of sick leave, vacation leave and compensation time accrued by its five employees.
Ryan said when he was conducting his financial analysis he asked Waller specifically about liabilities not indicated on district’s financial statements, such as retirement benefits, and was told there were none. He concluded that the district could borrow up to $2.5 million at low interest, based on the information he was provided, Ryan said.
“I’m retracting that opinion,” Ryan told commissioners Monday. “I have no idea what the [financial] condition of the fire district is, and I don’t think you do either.”
Lots of comp time
A record of accrued comp time, sick leave and annual leave provided by the district to the Methow Valley News last week shows that the five paid staff members, including the chief, have accrued a total of about 8,373 hours.
Almost half of those hours were accrued over the past 15 years by Waller, the district’s first paid employee who was hired in 2002 when the district was an all-volunteer organization. Waller is also the first employee of the district to retire.
“We realize we’ve got to work some things out,” Brian Colin, the district’s part-time secretary, said Tuesday. “This is a relatively new organization, at least since we’ve had paid employees.”
In response to questions raised at the commission meeting, Acord said employees’ hours have been recorded through personal journals until about six months ago, when the district changed to a computerized time management program to track hours.
The accrued hours are not carried as a line item in the district’s financial reports, he said.
After commissioners Jerry Palm and Darold Brandenburg said the paid leave agreement had not been reviewed by an attorney before they signed it, some speakers urged the district to take that step.
“I’d run it by a lawyer to make sure it’s legal and in the best interest of the district,” said Ross Darling.
“I think the quicker you guys sit down with your lawyer the sooner the community will feel comfortable,” said Duncan Bronson. “The end result is getting your records straight.”
As part of the paid leave agreement, Waller will have use of a district vehicle, continue to respond to fire calls and participate in training, and will maintain certifications.
The fire district values Waller’s experience and skills, and that was part of the reason commissioners approved the leave arrangement, said Palm and Brandenburg.
“He will be around for the next two years. I don’t know if we really want to lose him,” Palm said.
Brandenburg praised Waller for his contributions to the district and community. “I respect that man,” he said.