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States, municipalities, counties and private, non-profit agencies are now on the short end of the stick in much of the federal surplus property program.

They want, but often can't get, access to heavy construction and a wide variety of other equipment and supplies until foreign countries get first crack at them.But a piece of federal legislation, HR 919, which was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Nick Rayhall, D-W.Va., may help to correct the problem.

Rayhall's bill now has more than 40 co-sponsors, including Utah Congressmen Wayne Owens and Bill Orton. Although he is not a co-sponsor, Utah Congressman Jim Hansen is supportive of the measure, according to an aide. Sen. James Sasser, D-Tenn., is planning to introduce companion legislation, which will be co-sponsored by Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, and which, if passed, will re-establish states' priority over foreign governments for surplus property. Utah Sen. Jake Garn's office has indicated that he will likely also support the measure but wants to see the actual legislation before giving full support.

As part of a 1986 defense appropriations bill, Congress created what is known as the Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP), which originally was designed to assist freedom fighters in Afghanistan and anti-communist forces in Cambodia.

But this legislation has been interpreted by the Defense Department to reverse certain priorities by giving foreign governments first access to surplus materials - ahead of state and local governments and private agencies.

This interpretation of the 1986 defense appropriations bill does not make sense. In effect, it means that American taxpayers, who bought and paid for the property in the first place, must pay to repair the property and pay transportation costs to foreign governments.

After foreign countries are able to select the property they want, then other federal agencies and the states may have access to whatever is left over. And that's usually pretty poor pickings or none at all.

Recently, the General Accounting Office reported that the Defense Department paid $47 million to fix and transport federal surplus supplies and equipment that originally cost the federal government $48 million. That means the taxpayer had to pay twice for the property while receiving no side benefits.

The problem has wide impact in Utah and across the nation, where numerous governmental and other agencies cannot afford new equipment but would be willing to repair surplus property to meet their needs.

Utah agencies or programs seeking surplus equipment include the town of Vernon, Tooele County and Weber State University, which have each requested road graders. The Salt Lake Area Community Services Council is looking for IBM or IBM-compatible computer equipment. The Utah Department of Corrections has sought Department of Defense surplus food, which is being sent back to the United States from Desert Storm operations in the Middle East. Salt Lake County, Utah County, Spring City in Sanpete County, Tooele City and San Juan County are among about 40 agencies seeking grading and other heavy construction equipment.

Tooele Army Depot, for example, is sitting on acres of heavy road equipment desperately needed by local government agencies. Depot officials want to help but say their hands are tied by bureaucratic red tape.

The Rayhall bill would go far toward correcting these problems and should be passed as an act of simple justice to the American taxpayer.