SnoCo Exec squeezed mental health fund to pay friend’s big salary

SnoCo Exec squeezed mental health fund to pay friend's big salary

Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers squeezed a dwindling mental health and chemical dependency fund to pay his political ally’s high salary. It’s the latest controversy to come of Somers decision to gift his friend a cushy job in an attempt to overturn the will of the voters.

Somers hired former Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary to a senior analyst position focused on law and justice, and emergency services. His job partly oversees responsibilities of newly elected Sheriff Adam Fortney.

The move comes after a failed attempt by Somers to take control over the Department of Corrections from Fortney. Somers was concerned the new Sheriff would put prolific offenders in jail, moving away from a Trenary policy that earned him the boot from office.

After negative attention, Somers moved forward by gifting Trenary with a high paying gig that pushes his policy without the approval of the Snohomish County Council. The salary? It comes in at a whopping $148,100. We now know where at least half of it is coming from.

Follow the money

The Chemical Dependency and Mental Health (CDMH) Sales Tax was supposed to use a small portion of a sales tax “to fund new mental health, chemical dependency, or therapeutic court services.” Instead, it’s being funneled to Somers’ friend, against the advice of the program’s Advisory Board to stop overspending.

The Board’s chairperson wrote an October 2019 letter to Somers sounding the alarms:

The Fundamental concern: absent lowering the growth of costs levied against the Fund, the Fund will fall below the Board’s recommended minimum reserve balance, followed shortly thereafter by the Fund being over-committed.

But Somers moved forward anyway, committing the fund to between about $74,000 and $100,000 of Trenary’s salary.

That didn’t sit well with the Board, writing in February 10, 2020 of their concern with the greater funding decisions. They warned, “The time is coming when the only choice will be to stop offering assistance to those in our communities that are in dire need.”

An unpleasant surprise

Using the CDMH to fund the Trenary position was not well received by the council’s two Republican representatives.

Council Chair Nate Nehring tells The Jason Rantz Show that he is concerned with the funding decision and that he does “not believe that this hiring was in the county’s best interests.”

“The current position is a one-year project position and I will oppose any effort from the Executive’s Office to make it a permanent position,” Council Chair Nehring told me in a statement. “I believe that as elected officials, we need to be responsive to the residents we represent and take greater care of taxpayer dollars. The voters of Snohomish County gave a clear mandate in the last election when Sheriff Fortney was elected; efforts to undermine Sheriff Fortney are counterproductive and signal a lack of respect to the voters who put him in office.”

The staffing decision caught Snohomish County Councilmember Sam Low by surprise. He knew that CDMH board members were concerned about funding. He also heard rumors Trenary would be hired, but at time it was just that: A rumor.

“I had questions for staff and I felt like I could not get a clear picture of the position and why CDMH money was being used,” Councilmember Low told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “Although I did vote for the entire County Budget, I did vote against this position.”

Less surprised was Sheriff Fortney, who felt undercut by Somers the moment he defeated Trenary.

Cronyism on display

Fortney says he has two members of the Sheriff’s Office on the CDMH board and has been aware of the spending concerns for a while. Last week, he tried to talk with Somers about the decision but had no luck.

“We’ve gotten nowhere this week,” Sheriff Fortney told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “And I gotta be honest here, it’s a little frustrating because we’re talking about tax payer money, that tax payers in Snohomish County approved to go to programs for people in need in our community. And now it’s going to the salary of some made-up new position. But I think I could make a very strong argument it isn’t really needed.”

Fortney says the Trenary appointment is a very clear sign that Somers is “trying to circumvent the election.”

I asked Fortney if this Trenary hire was an example of cronyism.

“If I’m being honest, absolutely that’s what it looks like. Absolutely, it looks just like that,” he answered.

Somers stays silent

Somers continues to dodge our interview requests through county communications director Kent Patton.

But Patton did have a snarky response to Fortney’s concerns.

“You might ask Sheriff Fortney how many of his staff are also partly funded from CDMH and Roads Funds,” Patton said.

While I can’t speak to the Roads Funds usage, it seems weird to mention the CDMH fund here. Sheriff’s Deputies do what they can to connect vulnerable community members with resources to help get them off the streets. That sounds like a reasonable use of the funds.

Patton was less snarky when emailing the Everett Herald. He painted a rosy relationship between the Executive and Sheriff. He even claims that Somers “has been entirely transparent with the Sheriff and believes they both want to show results.”

“I’m trying to be an optimist,” Fortney told me. “I’m trying to get along with other people in county government. I’m trying to work on this relationship, and yet I’m only what, five weeks in office and he’s [Somers] undercut me every step of the way.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter.

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