Each year more than $300 million worth of items, from furniture and fresh eggs to military cargo planes and scientific equipment, are transferred from federal agencies that don't need them to states that say they do.
But General Services Administration officials have reached the conclusion that the record keeping of their agency's Surplus Property Program is poor and many of the donated items have been lost, stolen or used for unapproved purposes.
Transferred property generally is supposed to be put to use within one year, and then used for the approved purpose for at least a year.
The GSA recently made a spot check of the audits performed by state surplus offices and found:
In Maryland, 28 of 146 surplus items that were reviewed were not being used for their approved purpose. Two trucks given to Ocean City had been stripped for parts; a truck transferred to Mt. Rainier wasn't being used. In addition, a high-tech centrifuge given to the University of Maryland at Baltimore was not being used because it was broken. Under federal regulations, the centrifuge should have been repaired or returned to the GSA.
An audit in Virginia showed that the conditions of the transfer were not being met in 29 of the 137 cases reviewed. Thirteen items could not be located, including two rifle scopes given to Saint Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford for bird watching and a tractor given to the Sacred Heart Academy in Winchester. When the GSA questioned state officials, the agency was told the items were in place.
An audit of federal property donated to the District showed that 22 of 41 recipients did not have the proper documentation on file to qualify to receive federal property. The files of several recipients, for instance, did not include a form indicating that they were in compliance with federal civil rights laws.
"This isn't something we're going to shrug off; it's a significant problem," said Lester L. Mitchell, assistant GSA administrator for personal property. "They've been operating pretty loosely in the past."
Mitchell said that the program's problems include "top-level management disagreements over the need for tight record-keeping and follow-up activity on audits showing how properties donated to the states for free are being utilized." He said the problem may lie in poor GSA oversight of state audits, which are supposed to certify that federal laws are being followed.
The GSA took over the donations program from the Health, Education and Welfare Department in 1977, and put it with the part of the agency that handles federal land sales and the national defense stockpile. The program was largely ignored for five years until last October, when it was shifted to the Office of Federal Supply and Services.
The states like the program, Mitchell said, because it saves them money. But, he added, if items are not being used properly--and should be returned--the states are depriving other potential recipients of items they may desperately need.