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Monte investigation billings exceed $150,000

The tally for 18 months worth of union battles and investigations at Montesano City Hall exceeded $150,000 — with the price tag getting higher in the coming months to compensate for an unemployment claim after the city fired its former public works supervisor.

The city released the line-by-line reports and billings, following a recent public records request made by The Vidette.

City Administrator Kristy Powell notes that much of the costs are reimbursable from its insurance pool. City Councilman Tyler Trimble is also taking a hard look at the billings because he thinks the city might have charged some of the investigation costs to the budget of the city’s new Public Works Building. Powell says that’s just not so.

The Vidette looked at records between June of 2012 and December of 2013. During that time, the city launched several investigations, including whether some on the public works crew was harassing another member of the crew, whether one member of the public works crew dropped a heavy equipment’s bucket nearly on top of another member of the crew, whether city staff were looking at inappropriate images on city-owned computers, whether child pornography was found on city equipment, whether former public works supervisor Russ Burke took city paint and used it for his private business, whether the city administrator was harassing her employees, concerns involving a judicial employee, and the eventual termination of Burke, among other issues.

Altogether, The Vidette found that the city’s contracted labor attorney Scott Snyder was kept busy and billed the city $89,226 during that time period. These were attorney costs on top of what the city pays its contracted municipal attorney for advice and prosecution. The legal bills showed that Snyder was primarily working on investigation issues and labor issues such as grievances, termination processes, and advice to the council and mayor. There were just a few hours, taken out of the total by The Vidette, that Snyder spent researching health care provisions for the city. But, primarily, Snyder worked on grievances, layoff notices, advice for internal disputes and the fallout of the investigations.

Since that time, Snyder’s bills have just dropped to a few hundred dollars. Last month, he billed the city about $400 for his services.

In the middle of the investigations and union matters, Snyder actually increased his hourly billing rate from $210 per hour to $225 per hour. At one point, Snyder, another attorney and a legal clerk were all working on issues for the city. The month of May of 2013 saw the largest bill at $18,862 for just that one month. The next highest billed month was July for $12,789.

Powell said that Snyder’s billings were paid out between the general fund and the public works funds.

The city paid Iron Heights technology services of Montesano $8,798 in August of last year for finishing its investigation into whether city employees were viewing pornography on the job or generally wasting time. In addition, the records found that the city pays Iron Heights a regular fee of $154 for monthly managed Internet Security and $309 for network security.

The city paid former detective William Curtright $50,467 for his investigative services, resulting in several written reports and dozens of hours of interviews. Curtright charged the city $4,452 for a hostile work environment investigation, $7,798 for looking at a potential domestic violence situation involving a court employee and $5,208 for looking at allegations a public works employee dropped a heavy equipment “bucket” nearly on top of another employee. There’s aso a $4,400 invoice and a $13,362 invoice for looking at inappropriate computer viewing and billings that show he charged $1,622 and $3,586 to look into allegations involving Burke — as well as a $15,208 bill, charged for both the computer investigation and Burke, again.

The city paid the $50,467 obywed to Curtright using $46,015 out of the water fund and $4,452 out of its general fund.

Powell notes that the domestic violence billing has already been reimbursed by the insurance company.

However, the computer investigation costs will not be reimbused, she said.

She notes that the Russ Burke related billings will eventually be reimbused. However, the city will bear the expense of an unemployment claim Burke recently won. The city had appealed an administrative law judge’s opinion in favor of Burke, but lost the appeal. Powell says she’s not sure how much that will cost, but it will be a percentage of Burke’s old salary.

The city was not charged for the dozens of hours the Hoquiam Police Department spent looking into the allegations that Burke used city-owned paint for his private business. The police department recommended charges, but the Prosecutor’s Office declined to charge him. The city was also not charged by the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Exploited Children task force, which looked into potential child pornography on city-owned computers. A small “postage stamp-sized” picture of a partially naked, very young-looking female was found on one of the computers, there was not enough evidence to press any charges.

The tally also does not include any money that the city’s insurance pool has actually spent. Powell said the city doesn’t have a record of those expenses. The insurance pool has hired its own attorney to fight most of the claims levied by Burke, who has hired his own attorney and filed a $400,000 damage claim and a lawsuit against the city last year for wrongful termination. It was the attorney for the insurance pool that wrote a letter this past winter for a city witness, who was threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Burke’s attorney; not Snyder nor City Attorney Dan Glenn. No city funds were used on that letter.

Montesano Mayor Ken Estes says that $150,000 may sound like a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to the potential liability of just ignoring the complaints that came in. Plus, in just the Public Works department, the investigators uncovered more than 96,000 images — not all pornographic — and more than 8,000 hours of personal use on city computers and iPads.

“At $40 per hour, that’s $320,000 the city lost in time being wasted,” Estes said. “We did not ask for any of these investigations. We did our due diligence in making sure the complaints were followed up.”

Councilman Trimble notes that in May of 2013, he attended a council meeting — along with about 100 other people — and heard Public Works Director Rocky Howard talk about being $59,000 under budget on the new public works building. There was still a need for furnishings in the interior of the building and other items.

But Trimble says it doesn’t look like many of those items were purchased. He wondered what happened to the money.

“What bothers me even more is that these were budgeted items and in order to be a completed project they should have been done or done within a reasonable time after moving in, they still aren’t done,” Trimble wrote in an email to Howard last month. “So, if they were budgeted where did we go over? And why don’t we have them?”

Powell said that it appears that Howard may have mis-spoken at the meeting since the city’s numbers show that the engineering work cost about $59,000, showing that the city had spent its funds up to the budgeted amount.

Even so, Powell said that some equipment was purchased, including a fork lift and a lift for the mechanic; but other items have not been purchased, such as cabinets and oither interior furnishings, as well as a washer and dryer for the crew.

“We would never take investigative costs out of a capital fund,” Powell said. “We have other budgets for those kinds of things.”

Powell said the items have not been purchased yet because the city has been holding the line of many of its expenses. It’s part of frugal budgeting, she said.