Water Taxi Fare Thefts Show King County Still Can't Keep Track of Its Cash

Need quick money? Get a job on the water taxi.
Almost exactly one year ago, state Auditor Brian Sonntag's office blasted budget-strapped King County for having almost no policies in place for how employees should handle physical cash - as in bills and coins. Among the examples: an auditor noticed a vault filled with money collected on buses just sitting open.

A year later, handling cash is apparently still a problem. A King County Department of Transportation employee (who has so far only been identified by his gender) managed to walk off the water taxis to Vashon Island and West Seattle with an estimated $7,500 in fares over a short two months.

When you pay with cash to ride the water taxi, King County Department of Transportation Director Harold Taniguchi explains, the money goes into a little clear vault. New vaults go onto the ferries at the beginning of each shift and the employees on that shift are supposed to put the little vaults into a bigger safe at Pier 50 when they get off.

On average, the vaults have about $330 in them. Twice a week an armored car comes to pick up all the cash and take 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 money inside?

As 26 (26!) of the vaults disappeared, someone finally noticed a problem. Taniguchi says it took so long in part because people assumed any shortages were due to the vaults being with the armored trucks or at the processing center. "We bought additional cash boxes thinking that there's lag time," he says.

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 pegged 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 County 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 only bring in about 15 to 17 percent of the cost of running the water taxis, with the cash itself being a smaller chunk still. Given how little money is collected in those tiny vaults you have to wonder if it wouldn't be more cost effective to just declare it "tips" for the workers on the boats and let it go.

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