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 homes purchase price included) and easy (Were 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 Washingtons fire-protection districts, which have been singled out by the State Auditors Office for questionable management, and also an example of the hurdles presented by King Countys bureaucracy.
Consider this one number: The engineering company that planned the homes 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 wasnt fast, it wasnt cheap, it wasnt 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.
The discussion lasted only a few minutes. Most striking was what wasnt 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 Enumclaws fire chief in August 2009. At the time, Enumclaws department was run jointly by the city and District No. 28. Clows authority encompassed Enumclaw and about 90 square miles of unincorporated county around it.
Not long after Clows 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.
SIT AND 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 wasnt 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 Countys bureaucracy baffled the districts employees. They couldnt figure out what taxes to pay, where to pay them, or how to transfer the homes title. Did they need a residential permit? A commercial permit? (The former, they were told. Then they were told the latter.) The districts 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 wouldnt be easy. The districts 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 projects 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 homes move. For Hedges work, the projected budget was $12,500.
But district officials became unhappy with the first engineers 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 countys historic-preservation officials determined the districts project raised no issues with them. On May 26, 2011 nearly 14 months after the districts commissioners voted for the mobile home project the county issued a building permit.
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 firms 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 done. 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 Auditors Office concluded the homes purchase was a conflict of interest and violated competitive-bidding laws.
A local website, Enumclaw Patch, wrote about the audit, and three area businessmen began voicing objections about the districts spending.
Hedges, an engineer for about 40 years, said 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 homes purchase price, the lot fees and utilities, the engineering costs, the county fees and permits, the homes relocation and installation, and the costs of furnishing the place, and you get $309,794.37.