by Bruce A. Smith
Eatonville’s mayor Ray Harper found himself squarely on a political hot seat Wednesday, April 18, when renowned conservative radio talk show host Dori Monson railed about the Town’s mis-use of funds donated for the purpose of building walking trails and a system of foot bridges over the Mashel River and using them to pay regular, on-going Town expenses.
Eatonville Town Councilmember Robert Schaub appeared on Monson’s long-running radio broadcast “My Northwest” on KIRO radio in Seattle, and the two discussed the controversy. The podcast of their conversation can be heard at http://mynorthwest.com/?nid=577&a=9940699&p=6&n= .
Schaub had appeared on a KOMO TV broadcast the day before, appearing with television journalist Keith Eldridge. KOMO was investigating the Town’s response to a recent report released by the Washington State Auditor’s Office claiming that the Town had inappropritely spent $164,000 donated to the community to build foot trails on general services. ( http://www.komonews.com/news/local/147841995.html )
In the KOMO newscast, Mayor Harper readily admitted that the Town had spent the money to pay for basic services, such as police salaries, as revenues dried up during the economic downturn. Harper also acknowledged that it was not a wise or proper decision, and he pledged to find the money somewhere in the budget and reimburse the trail funds.
As a result of these investigations, the Mountain News spoke with Mr. Harper on Wednesday, April 18.
“I’ve been dealing with the deficit since I became mayor,” Harper said. “We used the trail money to pay for services the people wanted, such as police and fire.”
Harper also described the Town’s financial situation as more dire than Monson or KOMO had inferred – and indicated that the trail issue was also more complex.
Harper told the Mountain News that the foot trail project has been in the works long before he had become mayor and has received donations from many individuals. He said the total amount of donated funds was approximately $500,000 and had come from two major benefactors, the Blanchard family and the Koch family.
Further, Harper said the money had been deposited directly into the Town’s General Fund and had not been isolated in a separate account. In addition, the practice of dipping into these monies for a kind of in-house, short-term loan was a practice established by Harper’s predecessor, Tom Smallwood.
Also, Harper said he did not realize that monies were being diverted to pay for general expenses until he had been mayor for about ten months. He agreed that he should have stopped the practice when he realized it was occurring, and was remiss for not doing so.
Despite the transfer of funds, Harper said that work on the trails has been progressing, and he indicated that the absence of funds has not impeded the project, including being able to obtain grants and authorizations from the state for up to $600,000 in matching funds.
The Eatonville Trail System will cost $1.2 million in total.
Harper said that $300,000 has already been spent on the trail project – mostly in design and engineering work – and that actual trail construction will begin this summer on lands near the Eatonville Middle School.
“Then, we’ll be building the foot bridges over the Mashel River and the Little Mashel the following summer,” said Harper. “We’re going to find the money to keep this going.”
Harper also said that these trails are part of a larger network of foot paths that the state and other jurisdictions are building throughout south Pierce County.
As for the Town’s finances, the Mayor castigated the Town Council for its profligate spending, financially irresponsible policy decisions, and an utter refusal to raise property taxes in accordance with state statutes.
Harper says that when the Town Council voted to expand the fire department from a volunteer force to a professional one, he warned them that the effort was under-funded by a huge amount – $200,000 per year.
“We’ve had to pour in about $700,000 $800,000 in additional monies to make up the deficit that caused,” Harper said.
Harper said that to balance the books about $280,000 was diverted from trail monies in total – not the $164,000 identified by the state auditor.
“We owe the trails about 280 – we’re keeping track of it,” said Harper.
Another cost-cutting measure not well-received by the Town Council is the prospect of jettisoning the police department – which costs the Town $620,000 a year – and paying the county for police protection via the Sheriff’s Department.
The County will charge Eatonville a flat rate of $140,000 per full-time deputy, and Harper feels that two officers will be sufficient, for a total expense of $280,000.
Harper feels that move would save the Town an equal $280,000 per year when the expenses of running a judicial court, attendant salaries, attorney costs for grievances and other governance matters are considered.
Last year, the Town of Eatonville paid over $90,000 in attorney fees to address disputes arising from maintaining the police force. Harper sees this as a major expense that the Town will never have to pay again if it goes with the county.
“We have 12 public safety employees to protect a city of two square miles,” said Harper. “We just can’t afford it.”
Already Harper has reduced the size of the Town’s work force by seven workers. Harper said three employees will be laid-off in the near future, and will join the four that lost their jobs in the past two years.
As for the inference made by Dori Monson on his show that Harper was avoiding him, Ray said that Monson has simply left a message at Town Hall and he had only retrieve his messages after the broadcast. Harper promised to call Monson tomorrow, Thursday, and discuss these issues in full.
“I’m the mayor, and that’s what the mayor does,” said Harper as he pondered his upcoming conversation with the aggressive belligerence of Mr. Monson, who is loudly wondering if criminal charges should be brought against Mr. Harper.
Regardless, KOMO TV is reporting that the state auditor’s office is not filing any sanctions against the Town of Eatonville in this matter.
© 2012 Mountain News – WA