April 3, 2011 in City

State outlines options for fixing county right-of-way office

By The Spokesman-Review
File photo

Traffic heads west through tight curves on Bigelow Gulch Road in January. No work is being done on the Bigelow Gulch project and layoff notices remain in effect for nearly everyone in the county right-of-way office.
(Full-size photo)

Spokane County must hire a consultant and submit to close supervision by state officials to continue work on a $66 million project to improve Bigelow Gulch Road.

The Washington State Department of Transportation stripped the county of independent authority to acquire land for the Bigelow project and other federally or state-funded projects.

The department, which is responsible for enforcing federal regulations, found numerous shortcomings in the county’s six-person right-of-way staff.

On Wednesday, WSDOT officials laid out a couple of possibilities for rehabilitating the county office, both of which involved hiring outside help.

In one scenario, the county would simply replace its staff with consultants. In the other, the county would hire a consultant to work with the staff on acquisitions and to review appraisals.

Either way, the work would be supervised by a WSDOT official. The county staff would be required to use state forms, have its documents and correspondence approved in advance and allow state officials to tag along on visits with property owners.

County workers also would have to discuss their work in weekly meetings with state officials and complete several remedial training courses.

“They asked us to take that back to the office and digest it,” county Engineer Bob Brueggeman said. “Both parties want to get it done as soon as possible, but there was no firm deadline.”

He said state officials suggested the county might contract for a WSDOT supervisor from Wenatchee, but no details were offered.

Meanwhile, no work is being done on the Bigelow Gulch project, and April 29 layoff notices remain in effect for everyone in the county right-of-way office except the secretary. The layoffs may be canceled if state and county officials agree on a corrective plan.

Brueggeman said the added cost of hiring a consultant will weigh in the decision on retaining the county staff.

County Commission Chairman Al French said he has “absolutely no problem” with hiring a consultant as a short-term measure to get the Bigelow Gulch project back on track.

“My No. 1 goal is to restore the project,” he said, citing public pressure to reduce the road’s high accident rate.

However, French said he wants a long-term right-of-way strategy that is “different from what we’ve had in the past, because I don’t think we have anyone with the proper skill set in the first place.”

Brueggeman said most of the right-of-way workers transferred from the county assessor’s office, where they gained real estate experience.

He said the department’s two appraisers are state-certified, but the land-acquisition staff is prohibited from having active real estate licenses because of the potential for conflicts of interest.

Brueggeman said he is still waiting to find out whether the county will be asked to pay for Bigelow Gulch right-of-way acquisitions that have been declared ineligible for Federal Highway Administration funding.

The state Department of Transportation administers the federal spending and is on the hook for any misused funds.

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