Caretakers at two parks face difficult choice

Following a decision by the Vashon Park District’s board of commissioners, two parks employees must choose between keeping their jobs and remaining in their homes.

Currently, employees at two Vashon parks serve both as caretakers — living rent-free at the parks in exchange for caretaker duties — and as full-time maintenance workers earning hourly wages.

However, long-standing concerns about this arrangement recently resurfaced, and last week the park board unanimously approved a policy requiring that employees hold only one position with the district. They also approved a measure stating that the employees affected by the new policy will have until the end of the year to make the transition.

“I’ve got to choose my job or where we live. That’s probably the most difficult choice ever,” said Scott Provost, who with his wife Sydney Luhr has been a caretaker at Paradise Ridge for 15 years. Provost has also been a park maintenance worker for 17 years. The couple and their two daughters live in a mobile home they own but that sits on park land they rent from the district.

Also affected by the policy change is Eric Wyatt, who has been a caretaker at Point Robinson for three years and lives in an apartment in one of the Keeper’s Quarters; the district hired him for a full-time maintenance position Jan. 1.

While Wyatt declined to comment on the situation, Joe Wubbold, the president of the Keepers of Point Robinson, called Wyatt “a great asset” to the park and park district and said he wished the board had taken another route.

“There’s a way we could do it legally, ethically and morally, and the board elected not to do that,” he said. “I am disappointed about that.”

Park commissioners, however, said both situations should not continue for legal, practical and business reasons.

Because the men work in full-time maintenance positions, to fully adhere to state wage and labor laws and avoid the risk of a law suit, district officials say the men should be compensated at time and a half for their caretaking duties.

General Manager Elaine Ott said there have also been concerns about difficulties handling employee discipline. If there were a problem in one job, she said, it might make it difficult to deal with it because of the individual’s other role.

At its April 23 board meeting, Ott offered a solution to the wages issue: The district could charge the men rent and set their work and compensation to equal that amount.

But commissioner Bill Ameling couched the issue in economic terms at last week’s meeting. If caretakers are to be paid time and a half, he said, the district would be paying them $30 an hour for their duties. Instead, he noted, the district could charge caretakers rent and pay them $10 per hour of documented work.

“It’s just not a good business decision to have someone have both jobs. We don’t want to pay someone 30 bucks an hour to open a gate.”

Commissioner David Hackett noted that at time and a half, to be meet their target of compensation being equal to the rental value of their homes or land, Provost would only be able to work 12 hours per month.

While the five-member board agreed that employees can hold only one position in the district, they disagreed over how long the men should be allowed to stay in both roles.

Commissioner Lu-Ann Branch said she felt the men should be allowed to stay as long as they wanted, as the district had some responsibility for them being in this position and their lives would be affected by the decision.

“We the park district screwed up by allowing this to happen,” she said.

In the end, Ameling, as well as commissioners Joe Wald and John Hopkins voted to give Provost and Wyatt until the end of the year in their current arrangements. Branch voted against the measure, and Hackett abstained.

After the meeting, Branch said she was unhappy with the outcome. Though Provost and Luhr’s contract has lapsed, she said, there were implicit understandings with those involved.

“We made an agreement with them. People make decisions based on that,” she said. “It’s insensitive and unethical not to follow through on that.”

Both Ott and Hackett, however, said they regretted the personal implications of the decision but felt making change was the right thing to do.

“I think it is a smart policy,” Ott said.

She added, though, that she is concerned for the people involved.

“As a manager, I care about my employees,” she said. “I care about their welfare.”

Hackett noted that he abstained in part because he would have been open to giving both men a longer time frame — and that he was concerned that if Provost chooses to keep his job, six months will not be enough to move his home. He added that if Provost and his family move, should they need more time to obtain the proper permits, he would be willing to revisit the issue with the board and consider an extension.

“I have sympathy for what this puts the family through,” he said.

In the days following the meeting, Provost and Luhr said they were unhappy about the decision, especially in light of their long history with the agency.

Several years ago when the district was looking for new caretakers, then director Wendy Braicks approached them about becoming the caretakers — precisely because Provost was an employee, he said. Additionally, Luhr was often home during the day, could provide a presence at the park and, after growing up on Vashon, has deep roots in the horse community.

After negotiations, Provost said, they bought their home, and the park district put in $21,000 to clean up the site and put in a foundation and a septic system.

Over the years, he said, the contract often lapsed, but when Braicks was the director, it was understood it would be continued.

Still, Provost said, they knew that living there “was not a forever thing.” And, in fact, he said, this issue has come up before. When it happened several years ago, Provost and Luhr both say that Ameling told them they would be grandfathered in.

At the last meeting, Ameling vehemently denied telling them that.

Regardless, the board has voted, Provost said, and he must choose between his home and what he called his “dream job.”

“This is what I what I went to school for — Aboriculture, Urban Forestry and Park Management,” he said. “I have been here for 17 years, and all of a sudden — this.” Provost said he understands the dollars and sense of the decision, but it feels personal.

“Obviously, they do not want me, but I do not know why,” he said.

What’s more, Luhr and Provost said the lack of communication on the issue has stung.

Prior to the meeting when the topic was discussed last month, no one contacted them to let them know, Provost said. Nor have any of the commissioners talked about the issue and what might work for them so that no one “got backed into a corner,” Luhr said.

“How hard would it have been to have had a conversation with Scott and me?” she said.

The caretaker position, Luhr noted, is not simply a matter of opening and closing gates and picking up trash, as Ameling characterized it at the meeting.

There is a lot to be learned about living at a park and living in a horse park, in particular, she said. And sometimes people get hurt. Provost said repairs are endless and he and his wife have helped with a number of injured equestrians at the park.

Once, Luhr said, she watched as Provost and Wyatt intervened after a horse accident. Provost grabbed the spirited horse, and Wyatt quietly tended to the woman.

“They just care,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you try as hard as you could to keep this level of service up?”

Wubbold, concerned about the situation at Point Robinson, said he will continue to push for a reversal of the new policy, noting that several new people are running for the park board with an election in November.

“There are many turns of the propeller between now and the first of January,” he said.

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