By Brian Joseph
OC Watchdog blog
The Orange County Register
May 18, 2009
At precisely the time when a faltering economy means cities and schools need to save money, the state of California has decimated one of the very programs that helps local governments cut costs.
For decades, schools districts like the Huntington Beach Union High School District and the Anaheim Union High School District have depended on an obscure program that allows nonprofits, small businesses and local governments to acquire surplus federal equipment at dramatically reduced prices.
Under the Federal Surplus Personal Property Program, you can get a$15,000 forklift for $1,000, an $8,000 Dodge van for $750.
“That’s how we’re sending money to the classroom. We don’t have to buy a $60,000 truck,” said Steve Bradford, fleet manager for the Huntington Beach district. He said his district has acquired staff cars, trucks, vans, electric carts, forklifts, trailers and portable lights through the program.
“It’s been a life saver for us,” said Scott McDonough, garage supervisor for the Anaheim district, who estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the 150 vehicles in his “white” fleet (non-school buses) were obtained through the program.
To cut costs, however, the state recently closed the program’s headquarters in Santa Ana and moved the operation to Sacramento. That might not sound like a big deal, but McDonough and Bradford say it’s been a disaster. They say the program doesn’t work now and they can’t figure out what equipment is available.
“Basically, they’ve taken our teeth out and we can’t chew anymore,” Bradford said. “We’ve lost one of our most important tools.”
Bradford and McDonough are upset because when the Santa Ana office closed, the program lost a key employee who patrolled the military bases in Southern California and screened the surplus equipment.
The federal government has a Web site where people like Bradford and McDonough can see what surplus equipment is available, but the men say the information there is horribly unreliable. Something listed as a wheelbarrow may turn out to be a 40-foot crane. The screener in Santa Ana told them what was really there.
“We have no eyes and ears on the ground for us,” McDonough said.
And it’s not just a matter of convenience. Under the rules of the program, the school districts have to pick up whatever equipment they want themselves. So, while the equipment may be cheap, it’s still a big commitment of time and money for the districts to pick up the thing.
“My times is short as it is,” McDonough said. He can’t spend a day driving out to a base and find the truck he wanted is missing four tires and an engine.
The screener prevented such problems and helped McDonough and Bradford navigate the bewildering military bureaucracy. Southern California has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of military bases and the level of red tape is astonishing.
Now, however, McDonough and Bradford say they’re dealing with state employees in Sacramento who don’t have any useful information. They can’t find out whether the equipment they want is in working condition. They can’t get help in obtaining the equipment. They can’t get anywhere.
“I can’t buy anything new, that’s out of the question,” McDonough said. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do.
“It’s stupid,” Bradford said.
Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the state Department of General Services, which administers the surplus program, sympathized with the criticism and acknowledged the importance of the program to school districts and local governments.
But he said the Santa Ana office was closed and the screener was eliminated because the state was performing a service that the federal government ultimately should be doing. And in these tough economic times, with the state facing billions in red ink, he said it’s important that the Department of General Services focus on its responsibilities.
“We kind of feel like many of our staff (have) been performing a function that the federal government should have been performing,” Lamoureux said, referring to the screener’s role of identifying and “kicking the tires” on surplus equipment.
Lamoureux said the state has had discussions with the federal government about the program and the feds “appreciate there’s more they could do.”
But will federal government act? Will they somehow replace the function of that all-important screener?
“We hope so,” Lamoureux said.
That’s got to be encouraging for Bradford and McDonough. Don’t hold your breath, fellas.