Loose Change on the Water Taxi

King County belatedly busts a thieving mariner.

Almost exactly one year ago, state Auditor Brian Sonntag's office blasted budget-strapped King County for having few policies in place for how employees should handle cash. Among the examples: An auditor noticed a vault filled with bus fares just sitting open.A year later, handling cash is apparently still a problem. A King County Department of Transportation employee (who so far has only been identified by gender) managed to walk off the job with an estimated $7,500 in water-taxi fares over the course of two months.When you pay with cash to ride the water taxi, KCDOT Director Harold Taniguchi explains, the money goes into a little clear vault. The vaults are swapped out at the beginning of each shift, and the employees leaving work are supposed to bring the vaults, which contain an average of $330 in cash and coins, to a bigger safe at Pier 50. Twice a week an armored car picks up the money and takes it to the county's revenue-processing center.Apparently this enterprising individual, whom the King County Department of Transportation hired last April, thought: Why put the little vaults in the safe? Why not take them home instead, break them open with a hammer, and keep the proceeds?After 26 (26!) of the vaults disappeared, someone finally noticed a problem. Taniguchi says it took that long in part because county staff assumed that the missing vaults were somewhere en route. The county even bought more vaults, thinking it didn't have enough of them.But once someone suspected a problem, Taniguchi says, DOT started limiting access to the vaults and paying more attention to who handled them. Transportation staff quickly traced the problem to one man. The Sheriff's Office obtained a search warrant for the man's home in Tacoma, where deputies found seven of the vaults and arrested him. Sheriff's Office spokesperson John Urquhart says the case is now with the Prosecutor's office for charging.Taniguchi says the department will hire a consultant to help make the entire cash-management process on the foot ferries more secure.Then again, fares bring in only 15 to 17 percent of the cost of running the water taxis. And most of that isn't in cash, but prepaid tickets, ORCA passes, etc. Given how little money is collected in those tiny vaults, you have to wonder if it wouldn't be more cost-effective just to declare it tips for the workers on the boats, and let it go.

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