April 29, 2011 in City

Right-of-way agents to be laid off today

By The Spokesman-Review
Little choice

County Commissioner Mark Richard said commissioners decided to go ahead with the layoffs because they have no assurance the Bigelow Gulch project can be completed.

All six Spokane County right-of-way agents will be laid off today.

The dismissals resulted from a state Department of Transportation decision to strip the county of independent authority to acquire land for state or federally supported road projects.

A state examination found numerous violations of federal standards in land purchases for a $66 million project to improve Bigelow Gulch Road.

The county plans to convert Bigelow Gulch and Forker roads from two lanes to five, including a center turn lane, in an 8  1/2-mile stretch from Havana Street to the Sullivan Road-Wellesley Avenue intersection.

County Commissioner Mark Richard had hoped to avoid the layoffs, which were announced March 22, by adopting a Department of Transportation plan to supervise and train the county staff.

Richard said commissioners decided to go ahead with the layoffs because they have no assurance the Bigelow Gulch project can be completed. Federal Highway Administration officials haven’t responded to a state proposal to segregate tainted portions of the project so other segments can proceed.

State and county officials disagree about whether some of the problems can be repaired. Portions of the project with insurmountable problems may not be eligible for any federal money – not just right-of-way costs.

The state Department of Transportation is on the hook because it is responsible for enforcing federal regulations. However, the department could bill the county for any money it loses.

Without knowing the Federal Highway Administration’s position, county officials can’t estimate the potential costs, Richard said.

So far, more than $4.2 million of federal money has been spent, and county officials are counting on getting $19.7 million more.

Richard said many of the problems were related to land the county bought before obtaining any federal money. Agents saved money by purchasing properties that were already on the market, he said.

The county didn’t seek reimbursement for those expenditures, but Richard said that apparently makes no difference under federal rules.

Besides ignoring rules designed to ensure fair treatment of landowners, county agents engaged in unprofessional conduct such as making disparaging remarks in official documents, according to Department of Transportation investigators.

In one example, county right-of-way supervisor Barry Lines wrote that a property owner “got a look in her eyes like the lion preparing to finish off the kill.”

Lines, who is among those to be laid off, also was alleged to have violated conflict-of-interest rules when he served as an agent as well as a supervisor.

County officials agreed in January to pay Bigelow Gulch resident Quentin Todd Wood $49,950 to settle his claim that Lines violated federal regulations by coercing him to sell land.

Complaints from property owners prompted federal authorities to call for state transportation officials to investigate.

Even before the investigation, the right-of-way staff’s long-term prospects were dim. Richard said the county doesn’t have enough work for the office without the Bigelow Gulch Road project.

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