Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Public Agency Or Family Business?

A few days ago I learned that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission routinely gives away old, but working, computers to employees, though the agency is 100% funded with public dollars and its operating budget comes annually from property tax revenues forwarded by the seven county boards in its region.

I have written in this blog and elsewhere that SEWRPC has behaved more like a private consulting firm than a government body by filling senior staff positions, hiring comsultants and purchasing its current multi-million dollar office building in Pewaukee without searches, advertising or competitive bids common to public agencies' staffing and spending.

Someone else remarked that the property giveaways and other top-down management practices made the agency seem more like a family business, run by the founder or a relative, than a public agency using public dollars with a public service mission.

Family business struck me as far more precise, especially since SEWRPC has had only two Executive Directors since its creation in 1960.

And it led me to wonder what we'd think if we read in the newspaper that some area Town or Village Presidents or Mayors, or Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, for example, were letting employees walk out of their offices with computers?

Or Scott Walker, Mayor Tom Barrett or any other official directly accountable to the voters - - not a part-time board of commissioners - - for the stewardship of millions of dollars in public dollars annually.

SEWRPC Executive Director Phil Evenson confirmed the computer giveaway in an email exchange with me, which I will reproduce in full, below.

I sent him a follow-up email asking if there were any additional points he wanted to make, and he did not send back a response.

From: James Rowen
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 10:14 AM
To: Evenson, Philip C.
Cc: Yunker, Kenneth R.; Larsen, Elizabeth A.
Subject: computer questions

Dear Phil; I am checking the accuracy of the following information brought to my attention, and respectfully ask for clarification and verification: Once or twice a year, dating back some years, I was told that SEWPRC has held a lottery through which it gives to employees used SEWRPC computers being replaced with newer models. And that there is no charge for these computers. Correct? The information was that one such distribution took place in 2008 and that this year 20-to-40 in-house computers were given away in this fashion, as an upgrade took place where older computers were replaced with machines that had flat screens. The computers given away are Dell PC's (perhaps other brands, but the information was that all are Dells through a government purchase) and come with software. Is that accurate, and if not, can you tell me where is it not accurate? The information is that these giveaways have gone on for so many years, eight-to-ten was mentioned, that some families have outfitted their children with computers in this fashion, too. I remember that when I worked for the City of Milwaukee, used property was auctioned, and later, a web auction service established and offered to other jurisdictions, too. I have also read that government entities sell their surplus on eBay or other similar sites. Does SEWRPC do that, or contemplate it? Does SEWRPC giveaway any other surplus property to employees - - office equipment, computer peripherals, furniture, vehicles? Does SEWRPC have a written policy to govern these computer or other giveaways so they are not abused by later resale, or certain individuals obtaining selected items through favoritism (first to see the list?) or other means? Could these items instead be donated to non-profit groups? Thank you.

----- Original Message ----
From: "Evenson, Philip C."
To: James Rowen
Cc: "Yunker, Kenneth R. Larsen, Elizabeth A"
Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2008 8:53:58 AM
Subject: RE: computer questions

Jim - We try to take a low cost, common sense approach to the disposal of material items, taking into account that we are a small agency with few resources to expend on overhead and only occasional needs to dispose of unneeded or obsolete items. As to used office furniture and some equipment, we try to give unneeded/obsolete items to nonprofit agencies. From memory, I recall giving items to such groups as La Causa, the Boy Scouts of America, and the National Cristina Foundation. As to vehicles, we tend to run them until there is little value left, and then trade them in. On some past occasions, we have let employees bid on vehicles to see if we could improve on the trade-in offer from the dealer. A few vehicles were sold that way. In recent years we have simply traded them in or sold them to a used vehicle vendor for a better price. We have occasionally used EBay to dispose of equipment. I recall selling some field equipment that way, including a trailer and a John Deere Gator vehicle used for field surveying activities. Computers and peripheral equipment pose the biggest challenge both because of relatively rapid obsolescence in the office environment and because of the need for proper recycling. Typically, such items have little market value. I recall trying in past years to sell or even give away to nonprofits used items with little or no success. We then offered these items to employees at no charge. No equipment was given away with any licensed software. I was not aware the the City of Milwaukee had a web auction service for this purpose and that other agencies could use it. That's a great concept and we would be glad to use it for computers and peripherals. Unfortunately, in checking yesterday we were told the the City no longer disposes of such equipment via that technique. Rather, the City turns over all such equipment to an outfit called Cascade Asset Management. If this outfit can sell a piece of equipment, the City gets some revenue. If a piece of equipment must be recycled, the City gets a charge. Perhaps these amounts balance out. I like this idea, too, and I think we will follow the City's lead in this regard. Phil

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