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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Past mistakes teach us nothing

The Spokesman-Review

If we’re not going to listen to government oversight agencies, we should fire all their workers and sell off the office space. At least that way we can recoup some of the money the feds have squandered with helter-skelter contracting and spending practices.

Blue tarps provide the latest example. Thousands of them are being nailed to houses in the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone, and, according to a Knight-Ridder report, the average cost is $2,480 for 90 minutes of work. That doesn’t count the cost of the tarps, which are given to contractors free. The labor cost is 10 times more than normal. The government hopes to cover every salvageable roof in the next three weeks. In Louisiana alone, that could mean 300,000 homes. The tarps are designed to last three months.

Naturally, such a job will cost more in an emergency, because contractors, many of whom are from outside the region, have to mobilize crews and house them. But other contractors say they would be eager to do the job for a much lower price.

Such is the state of government contracts these days, where preferred customers often get no-bid contracts with built-in guarantees for profits. Reports from the General Accounting Office and auditors of various government agencies have repeatedly outlined the lack of cost controls and oversight in government procurement, and their recommendations have been ignored.

Some examples the government should have learned from:

“The GAO audited Iraq support services and found that the U.S. Army mismanaged contracts to provide food and shelter for troops. Auditors say poor planning and a lack of oversight cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“After recent hurricanes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made $31 million in payments to residents whose homes in the Miami-Dade County area suffered little to no damage.

“A small-business loan program set up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in low-interest loans to businesses that were not affected.

In a recent USA Today article, Steven Spooner, a government contract specialist at George Washington Law School, said: “Read about what has been spent in Iraq, and all you have to do is change the word “Iraq” to “Louisiana.” We appear to have learned nothing.”

The effort to deliver ice to the Gulf States supports that contention. The feds purchased 91,000 tons of ice cubes to cool food and medicine and to hand out to victims of Katrina. The cost was more than $100 million, and most of the ice wasn’t delivered. Some truckers logged thousands of miles after being continually rerouted, only to unload their cargo in storage units far from the disaster.

Post-Katrina spending is expected to reach $200 billion. A billion dollars a day is heading out the door. The approach thus far doesn’t inspire confidence that the money will be well spent.