Ken Collins has left telephone messages with so many federal agencies during the past three weeks that when someone finally returns a call, he forgets which agency they represent.
Last Thursday, thinking he was talking to the Small Business Administration, Collins said a lot of nasty things about the Community Services Administration. It turned out he was talking to the man from the Community Services Administration.
This is unfortunate, since his whole purpose in coming here from Westfir, Ore., is to get money from the Community Services Administration. w
Collins came to Washington to apply for a loan -- a rural economic development loan -- from the CSA's Office of Economic Development. The $500,000 loan, he hopes, will enable his community organization to buy a recently shut down lumber mill and reemploy hundreds of workers who are about to go on welfare. Collins isn't getting paid for this. He used to work in the mill, and for him the trip is a labor of salvation for his community.
Collins isn't laughing as he tells the story of the phone conversation. His voice is trembling. He sounds like he wants to cry.
Many grant or loan applicants hire consultants or have experts on their staffs to help them. Collins came to town, his trip financed through the sale of bumper stickers, on his own, thinking that true grit could do the job. He thought he could sit down with a high official of an agency, sell him on the worthiness of the proposal, wait a few days, and go home with the money -- kind of the way it used to be done in small town banks.
In fact, he hasn't been able to get a face-to-face appointment with a single high official of the CSA. He has seen a lot of secretaries.
When CSA officials talk about Ken Collins, they too sound like they want to cry. In a few weeks Collins has become a bit of a legend there, one they sound fed up with. Besides the fact that he's pestering the over-worked staff as they go over 70 other applications for the money, he seems to want to know right away whether he can have it. To them, it is clear he doesn't understand the way things are done. There are rules.You're supposed to wait for the review panel to examine all the applications. You're supposed to wait for your formal notification. It's all set out in the rules. You're supposed to read them and follow them.
"His frustration? You're doing a story about his frustrations?" says a frustrated John Yoder, an official of the CSA's Office of Economic Development. "We can't help you with that. You'll have to talk to his analyst."
Ken Collins is an ordinary American citizen confronting the bureaucracy with its Federal Registers, its procedural rules and its action timetables. What he's finding, it appears, is that he needs an interpreter to understand them, as if he were visiting a foreign land.
The CSA is, for its part, a normal federal agency. It appears to be finding that when it confronts the ordinary citizen it needs, well, an "analyst" to understand his frustrations.
Both sides have noble goals. Collins grew up moving from one lumber mill town to another as mills where his father worked shut down. Collins, 30, thought he was getting out of the lumber mill routine when he joined the Milwaukee Brewers farm club in the minor leagues none years ago as a pitcher. Then he worked in lumber mills during the off season to stay in condition.
Collins ultimately found that his pitching arm went out on him after 90 innings each season. At the age of 26, he left baseball, having been told that he was too old, and went back to the lumber mill in Westfir.
Shortly thereafter, that mill closed too. That's what started Collins on the route to Washington. He and other workers and community leaders formed a cooperative, in hopes of buying the mill and using its resources for plywood assembly, recycling of waste wood from the forest floor for energy production, and other sensible-sounding things. He figured that if all worked as planned 400 people could be put back to work.
Someone in his county government, knowing of the hopes, sent him a copy of the Federal Register last spring in which the Rural Economic Development loan program was described. He filled out a lot of forms and applied for the money. He came to Washington, wearing a coat and tie, after quitting his job as a cook at the Sportsman's Cafe in Westfir.
The Community Services Administration used to be the Office of Economic Opporunity, the poverty agency President Nixon tried to dismantle. They changed the name and stripped away half its manpower and programs, instead of really abolishing it.
Since then, the agency is said to have been chronically understaffed, more so than most.
The rural development lenders, according to an agency spokesman, have roughly $20 million to dispense before Oct. 1, and more in the upcoming fiscal years.
"Collins," says Yoder, "is impatient with our routine procedures because he would like to get an answer. He's in competition with 70 others. Every application comes in here and they are undergoing review by the division, the program development and demonstration division, I think it's called.
"He's been calling us three times a day asking for reports on his progress. We can't respond to every inquiry. It's got to go through a screening and then another screening.
"Frustration? You ought to see the frustration of Mr. Lynch [Quentin Lynch, an official analyzing the loan applications] with all those telephone messages he's getting. We all have a lot to do here."
"Maybe there ought to be some way of preparing people to apply for money," says Herschel Cribb, a spokesman for the Office of Economic Development. "But if you do something like that, you're going to hear about it from the Hill. They'll say here you are, going out and helping people apply for money.
"I know it's difficult, complex as the regulations have to be, for an ordinary citizen to know what to do. It's not always because a person in the government doesn't want to help. It's not that people don't want to respond. We try our damnedest. We just can't hand out money."
"I thought I should come here," said Collins, "because I was afraid we'd get lost in the shuffle.It seems now like I'm getting the cold shoulder at CSA. I heard they already had decided who was going to get the money, that it was all decided before there was even anything in the Federal Register.
"Mr. Lynch told me to talk to Mr. Mukai [Gerrold Mukai, director of the Office of Economic Development], so I've been trying to talk to Mr. Mukai. But they keep telling me he's got meetings the rest of the day and tomorrow. I've sent him so many letters and call after call after call."
"Nobody's said there will be a decision on a certain date or a date at all. Everyone has a different version of how much money is involved.
"I've never been to Washington before. But I was in a lot of urban areas when I was playing baseball. There's a lot of egos."
As a personality, Ken Collins seems incapable of cynicism. But during his short stay in town, Washington words like "clout" and "hardball" have crept awkwardly into his vocabulary. Of hardball, he says, "If they want to play it I've got a lot of experience." Then he turns and heads once again for the corridors of CSA.