Author Archives: fdgadmin

Could a nuclear future be on the table for Washington state?

By fdgadmin | Published on December 03, 2014

OLYMPIA — Thirty years ago, construction was halted on the massive cooling towers on Fuller Hill at Satsop with hopes of a nuclear power future vanishing in the biggest financial boondoggle in state history, coining the phrase “WHOOPS” for the Washington Public Power Supply System.

Now, the newly named Energy Northwest is pushing legislators for a study to see if it makes sense to create new nuclear power facilities across the state.

The state Senate recently approved a bill that would create a task force to study nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuels passed with a 34-15 vote. State Sen, Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, voted for the legislation, while state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, voted against it. The legislation moved to the House Technology and Economic Development Committee on Feb. 20 for a public hearing and was slated for committee approval on Wednesday, Feb. 26.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, says nuclear power is safer and more efficient than in the past, and deserves a fresh look as a source for electricity.

“Nuclear power will have a future in Washington state,” he said during the Feb. 12 floor debate.

Ericksen, the primary sponsor, said Senate Bill 5991 calls only for a study, not construction of new facilities.

The task force would consist of eight legislators, four from the Senate and four from the House, with equal representation from both Democrats and Republicans. They would hold four meetings during 2014, and report their findings to the Legislature by Dec. 1. The task force would be concluded by Dec. 15.

Dale Atkinson of Energy Northwest, which owns Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant near Richland that produces approximately 10 percent of Washington’s electricity, is in favor of the bill.

Atkinson said nuclear power could be a good source of electricity for Washington and the nation because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels and it doesn’t release carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

“We believe that the study of nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuel is appropriate and timely,” Atkinson said at a public hearing in the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee in January.

Energy Northwest has been pushing for a statewide effort to build five to eight small-scale nuclear power plants since 2009, once even approaching the Grays Harbor PUD to join the effort. PUD commissioners rejected the offer, although they did conduct a public hearing on the matter.

In the 1950s, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), since renamed Energy Northwest, started a massive statewide nuclear power-plant construction project. Construction was halted mid-project as a result of design issues and cost changes. Four of the five plants were never finished, leaving the two cooling towers at Satsop as a relic of the past, serving more as an indiciator to where the Satsop Business Park is more than anything else. The fifth plant was the Columbia Generating Station, which is still in operation. WPPSS Board of Directors stopped construction in 1982 because the projected cost for all the plants was going to be more than $24 billion instead of the original $16 billion estimate.

This caused the agency to default on $2.25 billion in bonds — money that had already been spent on the scrapped power plants. At the time, it was the largest municipal debt default in U.S. history. The total debt for the project is currently $5.4 billion, which includes the Columbia Generating Station, according to Energy Northwest. The debt is owned by Bonneville PowerAdministration because they were the original backers on the bonds.

That debt is still being paid by ratepayers through their electricity bills.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, is in “soft support” of the bill and said in an interview that before any more reactors are built, nuclear energy advocates will have the task of convincing the public that this will be good for the state.

“The proponents of it have a huge [public relations] campaign to do,” McCoy said. “They are going to have a lot of difficulties.” He also said that supporters will encounter the issue of finding investors to fund future projects.

$750,000 dinner bill and no food after 3 years of trying to harvest fish.

By fdgadmin | Published on November 12, 2014

Chris Ingalls, KING 5 Investigator

A Washington State prison had a novel plan to feed its 2,000 inmates: open its own fish farm to to produce a steady supply of fish for the prisoners’ dinner menu.

But three years and $750,000 later, the operation has not harvested a single fish that went on to be fed to inmates at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen.

“I think any new start-up is tough to do,” said program manager Jim Parker.

In a back lot on the prison grounds, more than a half dozen fresh water tanks sit in a greenhouse. The structure was built in 2011, with a plan to breed tilapia – a warm water fish that has grown in popularity in the United States and is sometimes described as “aquatic chicken.”

Prison officials admit they’ve had problems with breeding, water temperature and fish growth. Those problems kept the fish from growing to a size large enough to be eaten.

“It’s not as simple as just putting the fish in the water,” said University of Idaho expert Gary Fornshell.

Fornshell said fish farms require a lot of expertise and some trial and error. However, he said it shouldn’t take three years for a farm to produce edible tilapia.

“If everything’s set up properly you should be able to have food size fish at least by 12 months of operation,” said Fornshell.

The fish farm is being operated by Correctional Industries — a Washington State Department of Corrections program designed to make the prison system more self-sufficient and to give inmates skills they can use once they are released.

“I’m excited about the program. I’m excited about the possibilities,” said Parker.

He said the program is modeled after one in a Colorado prison that is successfully farming fish and selling them for a profit.

Colorado experts have advised Correctional Industries on how to run the fish farm, but the Washington facility does not have an expert of its own.

Fornshell said he thinks it’s a mistake not to have hired an aquaculture expert to get the fish farm up and running.

“Based on (the fact) that they haven’t, as you stated, produced a fish in three years – that kind of proves the point,” said Fornshell.

Although the fish are puny, the growing bill for the project is not.

“All the costs right now, we’re right about at three quarters of a million dollars,” said Parker.

He pointed out that Correctional Industries is self-funded. It pays for the fish farm with profits from other prison programs it operates – like a furniture manufacturing plant.

Officials say the fish farm teaches inmates job skills, but right now it only employs two of the nearly 2,000 inmates at Stafford Creek.

Ken Orme, who is nearing the end of a 15-year sentence for assault with a gun, is one of the two.

“This is part of my transition in going out to the streets,” said Orme as he tended to some of the nearly 30,000 fish in the tanks.

“I believe it was a worthwhile investment for the state to make,” said Parker.

He said there’s evidence that the program is just turning the corner, that his workers have fine- tuned the system.

More than 400 lbs of tilapia meat was recently harvested. However, that fish won’t be fed to inmates until it’s tested and proven safe for consumption.

“I’m very excited once we get that first feeding to be sitting right there in the chow hall when (the inmates) eat that – and that is our plan,” said Parker.

Ethics board fines Lt. Gov. Brad Owen $15,000

By fdgadmin | Published on 

Lt. Gov. Brad Owen has reached a settlement with the Washington State Executive Ethics Board that fines him $15,000 for using state resources for his nonprofit organization Strategies For Youth.

The settlement, released Friday and which Owen has agreed to, would allow him to pay only $10,000 of the fine if he commits no other ethics violations for the next two years.

The ethics investigation came after revelations that Owen mixed his official duties with his nonprofit, including using state staff to schedule Strategies For Youth activities. Owen’s office also hired one of his nonprofit’s workers and later held the organization’s board meetings in his state office, according to the settlement.

Read the settlement here.

Though he agreed in the settlement that if the case went to a hearing, “the Board would likely conclude that Brad Owen conducted activities incompatible with his public duty,” Owen sounded defiant in a statement Friday.

“This settlement is agreed to merely to put an end to a frustrating process that does not allow me or any elected official the right to be heard by a jury of our peers as is guaranteed any other citizen,” he said. “Therefore, any further effort would just take away from the important work of my office.”

For more on just what the work of Owen’s office entails, read our pieces from 2003 and 2008.

State agency draws criticism for spending $600,000 on Tacoma workshops to boost employee performance

By fdgadmin | Published on November 08, 2014

By Brad Shannon, August 29, 2014

A division within Washington’s biggest state agency spent $600,000 for airfare, mileage, lodging, food and guest speakers to put on educational workshops in Tacoma for about 2,160 state employees who work in welfare- and food stamp-related programs.

There were three two-day events that ended Thursday at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center. Each was meant to get employees more engaged in their jobs with agency leaders by talking about goals and vision, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. Workers in the Community Services Division attended, and the average cost per employee for the two-day sessions amounted to about $217.

State Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville blasted the outlay Thursday after a KIRO Radio report as a “splurge,” contending that it showed “contempt for taxpayers.”

“The Community Services Division can’t get a handle on the fraud and abuse involving the (electronic benefit) cards it issues, yet it has no problem bringing thousands of its employees from around the state to a convention center — just so they can spend two days getting ‘engaged’ with their work, at taxpayer expense,” Schoesler said in the release. “… And how exactly does this help preserve the state’s ‘safety net,’ which is what people are always asking the Legislature to do?”

Babs Roberts, the division director who organized the workshops attended by a majority of the division’s staff members, said it was the first time in more than five years the staff has been brought together on a large scale to learn about agency goals, and that supervisors and managers say workers have returned to the jobs re-energized. She also said a forthcoming state performance audit will show the agency has made “incredible strides” dealing with electronic benefits abuse.

“It is important as well to bring those people together, have them talk and to hear from their leadership directly about how important their work is,” Roberts said. “This has been a long five years with this recession. We need to engage our employees.’’

Roberts said state workers have paid a price through budget cuts that in some cases lowered staffing levels while caseloads grew. The break-out sessions focused on wellness in the workplace, dealing with stress, agency goals and communication strategies.

Top agency leaders, including DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley, spoke. And Tim Gard, a Denver-based humorist and motivational speaker, discussed his experiences working in similar programs years ago in Montana.

Gard earned $17,500 for his three appearances, a break from his usual $10,000 fee per talk, Roberts said.

DSHS spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said event costs included $19,500 for the venue, $65,377 for catering, $125,186 for lodging, $101,566 for meal allowances for those traveling from other parts of the state, $10,230 for supplies and more than $250,000 for additional travel costs such as mileage, use of state cars or airfare.

Training events are not unusual in agencies. DSHS has done other motivational workshops for staff this year. In early April, it spent $2,500 for an employee seminar on the science of being happy, which featured an expert in brain science.

Other state agencies are holding events to teach workers about computer security, sexual harassment and other issues that affect agency performance and workplace morale.

The DSHS workshop invitations went out to Community Service Division staff members one day after Quigley told staff June 2 in an email about a budget-cutting exercise agencies are doing. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget director has asked agencies to identify 15 percent reductions in the 2015-17 biennium as his office starts looking for ways to close a budget gap of between $1 billion and $2.5 billion across state government in the next budget cycle.

Report raises questions about handling of welfare fraud tips

By fdgadmin | Published on 

Chris Ingalls, KING 5 News
A Department Social and Health Services internal report raises new questions about how effective the agency’s fraud unit is responding to tips about welfare fraud.

The May 2014 Focused Accuracy Review, obtained by the KING 5 Investigators through a public records request, examined 200 tips sent to DSHS fraud investigators.

“200 of 200 cases (100%) were considered invalid,” according to the report, because investigators did not respond to the tips in a timely or accurate manner.

The analysis revealed that only nine cases resulted in completed investigative reports. (Read the full report below.)

DSHS’s Office of Fraud and Accountability (OFA) is the same unit that purged more than 4,000 employee generated tips about welfare fraud. When questioned about that in February, OFA Director Steve Lowe said the tips were wiped off the books because DSHS employees were sending his investigators poor quality tips.

“Well, they would just shove that work over to us. It would sit in a pool and it was junk,” Lowe said in February.

However, the new report says 95 percent of the Fraud Early Detection (FRED) tips reviewed were made accurately. The problem, the report found, is in the follow-up investigation conducted by the fraud unit.

The tips typically come from DSHS financial and eligibility workers, who deal face-to-face with clients. The Washington Federation of State employees, which represents thousands of those workers, says the new report shows that its employees are working hard to root out fraud in Washington State’s social safety net.

“We get a lot of complaints that people are fraudulently receiving benefits. Our role is to screen them out during that application process,” said Patricia Loving, a shop steward and DSHS financial services worker in Vancouver, Washington.

“It’s very insulting,” said Loving of Lowe’s comments that she and her fellow workers are sending “junk” tips to fraud investigators.

Through a spokesperson, DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley declined an on-camera interview with KING 5.

In a written statement, DSHS said it has made many strides in the last few years in reducing fraud in taxpayer supported programs. However: “OFA continues to suffer from cuts in the mid-2000 when the Legislature reduced investigators by more than half,” the statement said, adding that DSHS inspectors are more efficient than ever but “that at the current level of investigators it is not possible to meet our timeliness goals.” (Read the full statement below.)

DSHS said the highest priority tips from the 200 cases were acted upon, but they did not meet the deadlines for timeliness. In other words, investigations may have been completed outside of the review period.

OFA was formed in 2011 under then-Gov. Christine Gregoire in the wake of KING 5’s “Their Crime, Your Dime” investigation that exposed widespread fraud in the food stamp program.

DSHS said it still doesn’t have enough fraud investigators and requested more in its most recent budget request.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office declined to respond to a KING 5 request for comment on this story.

DSHS Statement:

DSHS response to KING 5 questions on Focused Accuracy Review

September 19, 2014

It is important to understand that Washington state is running one of the strongest food benefit and welfare programs in the nation. In fact, for the first half of federal fiscal year 2014, Washington’s basic food payment accuracy rate was 99.8 percent, ranking it first in the nation. Further, by comparison to California, for example, DSHS is saving state taxpayers $337 million annually in administrative costs.

The Focused Accuracy Review is an internal DSHS review requested by the Office of Fraud and Accountability (OFA). The report confirmed that OFA-instigated changes within DSHS in the referral process have greatly enhanced the quality of referrals to the point that 95-plus percent of referrals are now considered “accurate.” This is a huge advance in investigation efficiency.

The report also confirmed what OFA has previously highlighted, that at the current level of investigators it is not possible to meet our timeliness goals. OFA continues to suffer from cuts in the mid-2000 when the Legislature reduced investigators by more than half. At the same time OFA inspectors have become more efficient than ever thanks to a new case management system and multiple LEAN streamlining projects. OFA also is recognized as a national leader in data analytics.

OFA has requested additional investigators as part of the coming budget process.

As a side note OFA continues to object to the hyperbole in the media that suggests OFA “purges” cases. As OFA has said repeatedly, we lack the resources to pursue every tip and each year thousands of low-level tips go uninvestigated. We prioritize early detection tips so the highest priority cases are investigated first. Further, repeat tips are prioritized higher.