$100,000 retreat draws fire - Despite budget cuts, agency books deluxe lodge for training

Jonathan Martin
Staff writer Spokesman Review

August 4, 2002

How do you boost the staff morale and training of a state agency wading through waiting lists, budget cuts and new management?

For the Washington Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the answer is a $100,000 retreat at a deluxe resort.

The three-day conference in December at the Skamania Lodge on the Columbia River is described as a training event. But the retreat's agenda includes a taxpayer-funded comedian, a pair of hospitality hours and some time for hot-tubbing.

"I think that's absurd," said Sue Elliot, president of the Arc of Washington, the state's most influential group representing the disabled. "When our state is facing another $1.2 billion shortfall, for them to spend $100,000 to train their staff is not a wise use of public expenditures. It's ridiculous."

Bob Williams, president of the fiscal watchdog Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, agreed.

"This is an outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars and shows an agency totally out of touch with the economic situation in Washington state," he said. "Thousands of taxpayers are unemployed. This is not the time for agencies to go to Skamania Lodge."

Skamania, in Stevenson, Wash., bills its mountain-and-river view rooms, swimming pool and cuisine cooked in a wood-fired oven as "rustic Northwest elegance." It's owned by an international resort company with properties in London; Provence, France; and Aspen, Colo.

Mike O'Brien, DVR's new director, defended the conference as a "cost-effective" way to get his 350 staffers together to better understand his management philosophy.

O'Brien, hired in November, said he looked into retreat centers in Olympia and Seattle, but found the off-season rates at Skamania were the most affordable, at about $277 per person for the retreat.

O'Brien has an annual training budget of $112,500.

"I was worried about (criticism), but when we balanced in the cost and all the other factors, it's the best option," said O'Brien, previously Oklahoma's vocational rehabilitation director.

"It'd cost less than sending them separately to conferences to pick up the skills."

DVR has a $106 million budget of state and federal funds to get disabled, job-hungry adults to work. Three-quarters of the budget is federal.

The agency is recovering from a budget crisis that caused waiting lists of thousands. Staff morale plummeted in the past two years, as DVR instituted an "order of selection" screening process that prioritized get-to-work aid for only the most disabled.

The agency has slashed waiting lists by shuffling midlevel management to front-line jobs, but more than 600 adults still wait for service, and are likely to continue doing so for years.

The conference's agenda and budget -- both obtained under a public records request -- are still drafts, O'Brien said. He's unsure whether the final versions will include $5,000 for comedian Kathy Buckley, a hearing-impaired actress featured on the Jay Leno and Howard Stern shows.

The budget includes $26,000 for food and $29,000 for rooms. On the conference's second day, the agenda includes time between work sessions for an "organized walk," an awards banquet and "billiards, hot tubs, etc."

"It's really beautiful here," said Libby Schatz, Skamania's director of sales and marketing. "If you haven't been down this way, I highly recommend stopping in."

The conference has drawn criticism both in and out of the agency. One staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called the conference "largely self-congratulatory" and inappropriate at a time when clients still awaited aid.

The Department of Social and Health Services, of which DVR is a division, has been roasted in a series of audits for its services to disabled people.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid found DSHS disability programs had such shoddy oversight that the federal agency is considering asking for $25 million back.

Rep. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, says a conference of "fat cat DSHS people patting themselves on the back at a swanky resort" is indicative of the agency's bad decisions.

"This soils DSHS's reputation even further," he said.

But O'Brien's efforts to slash middle management and reduce the waiting lists deserve some praise, too, said Luther Smith, past executive director of the Washington Rehabilitation Council, which monitors services provided by DVR.

"Some of the moves Mike has taken have had dramatic results," said Smith.

Smith acknowledges the conference's budget looks bad. " (O'Brien) didn't realize there'd be as much flak as there is," said Smith. "Spending it all at one time at one place, it looks big."

O'Brien boosted the number of DVR clients in part by allowing counselors' caseloads to grow to more than 100, well above the recommended 70 clients per worker.

Higher workloads are one of the reasons O'Brien wants all the staff together.

He said he held a similar all-staff conference in Oklahoma four years ago, and the improved morale resulted in 50 percent more adults being placed into jobs.

"The taxpayers are going to get a better return on their dollar," he said. "I think the meeting has to happen."


Jonathan Martin can be reached at (509) 459-5484 or by e-mail at jonathanm@spokesman.com.

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