Fed­eral spend­ing that re­ally stinks: A $98,000 out­house BLM cost marked up 1,000%

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY PHILLIP SWARTS

The lat­est ex­am­ple of mis­guided gov­ern­ment spend­ing smells a lit­tle funny — and it might not be just be­cause of the cost to tax­pay­ers.

The In­te­rior Depart­ment’s Bureau of Land Man­age­ment is tak­ing heat for spend­ing $98,670 to in­stall a sin­gle out­house at a trail­head in Alaska, the most re­cent ex­am­ple of fed­eral agen­cies mak­ing ques­tion­able pur­chases in Septem­ber.

The pre­fab­ri­cated Aspen Sin­gle, pro­duced by out­house man­u­fac­turer Romtec Inc., has a sin­gle toi­let, op­er­ates with­out wa­ter and can hold 750 to 1,000 gal­lons of waste. But the com­pany web­site puts the es­ti­mated start­ing price of the unit at $10,000, a lit­tle more than one-tenth of what the gov­ern­ment paid.

That raises the ques­tion of what the rest of the money bought. Are trans­porta­tion or la­bor costs re­ally hit­ting tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to in­stall an out­house?

For spend­ing twice the av­er­age U.S. an­nual salary on in­stalling an out­house at a 1,000 per­cent markup to list price, the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment earns this week’s Golden Ham­mer, a dis­tinc­tion from The Wash­ing­ton Times given for ex­am­ples of fis­cal waste, abuse and mis­man­age­ment.

Af­ter five com­pa­nies com­peted for the con­tract, BLM hired Alaska-based Big Street Con­struc­tion, a small com­pany run by a mar­ried cou­ple that is listed in fed­eral databases as both owned by a woman and mi­nor­ity-owned.

Big Street Con­struc­tion’s head­quar­ters are about a fourhour drive from the head of the Swede Lake Trail where the out­house is des­tined to go. Costs of the con­tract, some de­tails of which were first re­ported by the Web-based news site CNS News, were to cover trans­port­ing the out­house and con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als to the in­stal­la­tion site.

How­ever, the man­u­fac­turer, Romtec, is based in Oregon, and gov­ern­ment pa­per­work lists it as the man­u­fac­tur­ing lo­ca­tion. That sug­gests that the unit it­self is be­ing trans­ported to Alaska all the way from Oregon. The trip from Romtec’s head­quar­ters to the trail­head is al­most 2,500 miles.

BLM of­fi­cials could not be reached for com­ment Thurs­day — not an un­com­mon oc­cur­rence dur­ing the fed­eral shut­down, when most gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who com­mu­ni­cate with jour­nal­ists and the pub­lic have been put on un­paid fur­loughs.

Web­sites and databases also have been shut down. Any at­tempt to ac­cess BLM’s web­site is redi­rected to its par­ent agency, the In­te­rior Depart­ment.

A state­ment from the depart­ment — which over­sees thou­sands of na­tional parks — said re­main­ing staff were fo­cused on pro­tect­ing lives and prop­erty.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for Romtec and Big Street Con­struc­tion did not re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment.

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice es­ti­mates that De­nali Na­tional Park re­ceives 400,000 visi­tors a year. The in­stal­la­tion of the out­house is ex­pected to be com­pleted by Au­gust.

The unit doesn’t have in­ter­nal plumb­ing but op­er­ates sim­i­lar to com­mer­cial por­ta­ble toi­lets: All waste goes into an “un­der­ground vault.” In­te­rior Depart­ment per­son­nel then ei­ther have to let a sep­a­rate con­tract for some­one to empty the out­house when it gets too full or face the un­en­vi­able task of do­ing it them­selves.

Gov­ern­ment pur­chases in Septem­ber of­ten face in­creased scru­tiny, and fis­cal watch­dogs have long crit­i­cized fed­eral agen­cies for go­ing on shop­ping sprees in the fi­nal month of the fis­cal cal­en­dar. De­spite the fis­cal clashes on Capi­tol Hill, many gov­ern­ment de­part­ments are still tak­ing a “use it or loose it” men­tal­ity to their bud­gets, fear­ful that the fund­ing they re­ceive from Congress will be re­duced if they don’t spend their al­lot­ted bud­gets by the fis­cal year’s end. Some agen­cies spend dou­ble their nor­mal monthly av­er­age on pur­chases of­ten of ques­tion­able need for tax­pay­ers.

This isn’t the first time the gov­ern­ment has bought an ex­pen­sive out­house. In 1997, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice in­stalled one at a park in Penn­syl­va­nia that was es­ti­mated to cost more than $300,000.

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