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Golden Hammer: Federal spending that stinks: The Interior Department’s $98,000 outhouse
Question of the Day
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 four-hour 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.
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.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Phillip Swarts is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times, covering fiscal waste, fraud and political ethics. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and previously worked as an investigative reporter for the Washington Guardian. Phillip can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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