COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A drive past the back side of the South Carolina State House in September has uncovered a refurnishing project inside the House of Representatives. The project will cost taxpayers nearly $2 million when it's finished in the next 24 months.
On Wednesday Sept. 11, we spotted several McWaters office furniture trucks parked along Pendleton Street, outside the Solomon Blatt Building. The building houses all 124 House members' offices, as well as all House committee and staff offices. We watched as workers unloaded hundreds of boxes of furniture into the underground garage beneath the Blatt Building.
Workers spent several hours unloading the McWaters trucks before unboxing the furniture. At the same time, State Budget and Control Board workers were carting the old furniture out of the Blatt Building and into state-owned moving trucks.
This was a project that started more than a year ago, according to Representative Garry Smith. Smith chairs the House Operations and Management Committee, the body that recommended to House Speaker Bobby Harrell spending $2 million on the refurnishing plan. The plan is to replace the current furniture in every House member's office, most of the desks, bookshelves and chairs in the receptionist areas of every suite in the Blatt Building and some furniture in committee offices.
The member offices comprise three floors of the Blatt Building. There are four member offices inside a single suite. Those offices share a receptionist and waiting area inside each suite.
On June 6, 2013, Rep. Smith's committee recommended to House Speaker Harrell to get rid of all furniture inside House members' offices and replace it with brand new furnishings, purchased under a state contract. House records show Harrell signed off on the project, approving the spending.
"The office building here was built in 1979. At that time they bought the furniture for the office building. 34 years ago they bought the furniture for this building and it's been here ever since," Rep. Smith told WIS. "The furniture they (1979 House members) bought was meant to take and meet the needs of that day, which meant they were built around typewriters and things like that, that are no longer here," Smith said.
Smith told WIS the old furniture was breaking on a daily basis, "Literally, we were putting it together with duct tape." Smith argued they couldn't make repairs to the old furniture because there were no replacement parts available because of the age of the pieces.
"It's just dangerous, we didn't want anyone to get hurt," Smith said, "The chairs were really in bad shape, and the outside receptionist area and the furniture and all there. When you have the wall units that go on top of the credenzas falling, that's a huge problem for us; huge safety issue."
We asked Speaker Harrell for an interview concerning his decision to approve the furniture purchase. Harrell, through his spokesman instead, sent us this statement regarding the project: "First of all, I commend the members of the House Operations & Management Committee for all the work they did to ensure taxpayers received the best deal on this necessary maintenance to the Solomon Blatt Office Building. Replacing this 34 year old, outdated, and in multiple cases broken and safety code non-compliant furniture was clearly necessary maintenance. The House Clerk and I approved the Committee's unanimous recommendation for replacing the furniture this summer, as all purchases of the House of Representatives must be approved by both the Speaker and the House Clerk."
Some members kept some of the receptionist tables and some chairs that were already inside some of the offices.
The Speaker's Office, Speaker pro tem, Rep. Alan Clemmons, Rep. Bruce Bannister, Rep. Kris Crawford, Rep. Bryan White, Rep. Bill Sandifer and Rep. Kenny Bingham all turned down the new furniture, according to House Clerk Charles Reid.
As of this report, the House has spent $1,569,214.79 on new furniture. That includes new desks, desk chairs, reception chairs, bookshelves, computer tables, filing cabinets; every piece of furniture needed to outfit a House member's office. The House bought 122 office set-ups, according to records furnished by the Clerk of the House. The expenditures so far do not include furniture the House will purchase to replace furniture in House committee offices in the coming months, according to Smith.
We filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the House clerk's office, looking for all spending associated with the Blatt furniture project. We got back a price listing for each piece purchased with your tax dollars for each floor of the Blatt building. Here's the price per piece:
-Desk Chair (large): $1,100.70
-Desk Chair (small): $703.80
-2 Drawer Filing Cabinet: $928.35
-Member Side Chair: $601.65
-Reception Table Chair: $472.95
-High Back Guest Chair: $729.90
-Reception Lamp Table: $409.95
-Credenza, Computer table: $4,468.50
**Some pieces were given discount pricing after a certain number of pieces were purchased
Here is the cost per floor:
-3rd Floor: $749,043.13
-4th Floor: $566,840.27
-5th Floor: $253,331.39
**Total does not reflect furniture costs for House staff and committee rooms
The Budget and Control Board took the old furniture to its surplus site and the majority was sent to other state agencies for use. We asked the B&CB for records to show how much money the House recouped. Here's the information the agency sent us:
-$17,363: total dollars recouped in Blatt building furniture sales as of Dec. 5.
-359 pieces of furniture was sold back to taxpayers from state surplus for a total of $8,314.
-441 pieces are still in state surplus storage.
**B&CB records did not itemize each piece of furniture by agency or item.
CRITICIZM OF THE PLAN
The main reasons for replacing the furniture was because it had become "too dangerous," and the furniture was "out of code," according to Rep. Garry Smith, whose committee recommended replacing the old furniture with new. What happened to the old furniture?
The House asked State Surplus to take the old furniture and resell it to the public and to other state agencies. State Surplus warehouse manager Tom Hornsby told WIS, "I'd feel comfortable saying a majority" was sold to other state agencies. Hornsby made the statement while we were trying to find remaining pieces of the House furniture at the surplus warehouse in West Columbia. During our visit, Hornsby could not tell us how much money the House recouped off the sale of the furniture.
There are dozens of arm chairs, credenzas and House member's desk chairs still inside the state surplus warehouse; all for sale to the general public.
"If that's the case, why is it safe for other state agencies? Why are they reselling this furniture? And, wasn't there a less expensive option other than $2 million in brand new furniture," South Carolina Policy Council Director Ashley Landess asked. Landess' group spends its days pouring through State House budgets, looking for questionable spending by lawmakers. Landess said her group never saw anything in the House budget that would have told the public about this furniture renovation.
"Had we not stumbled upon those furniture trucks at the backside of that House office building, when do you think we would have found out these House members are sitting in brand new furniture," Barr asked Landess, "Maybe the next time you went in to talk to one of them," Landess replied.
The spending so far comes to an average of $12,862.41 for each of the 122 offices the House furnished under this project. Landess and other State House watchdog groups think there had to be a less expensive way to refurnish the Blatt Building.
"My guess is Prison Industries probably could have done whatever was needed for less than $50,000 and instead the legislature spent $2 million. So, it's a huge waste of public funds," Common Cause South Carolina director John Crangle told WIS. Crangle was referring to inmate labor at the SC Department of Corrections that manufactures office furniture just like the pieces the House bought under this project.
"We probably could have gotten out of this project for around $100,000 to replace most the broken pieces and refinish what we had, instead taxpayers have gotten stuck with a $2 million purchase so lawmakers have something nice to sit in when they're in Columbia," Crangle said.
Rep. Garry Smith, who chairs the committee that voted to ask House Speaker Bobby Harrell to approve the project, told WIS the project is just a standard part of the "routine maintenance" process to take care of the Blatt Building.
"House members are here three days a week, six months a year and most of that time is spent in committee and on the House floor. How do you tell the public this was needed when there is so little time spent in these offices," Barr asked Smith. "You're looking at least six months out of the year that they are here and spending time in the office," Smith said, "and some lawmakers are here at times throughout the year, as well."
Smith said his committee wanted the new furniture to be something South Carolina taxpayers could "be proud of," but that his committee tried to save money every step of the way. For example, Smith said the bookshelves on either side of the House office credenzas were supposed to come with wooden doors. Smith's committee asked the manufacturer to leave the doors off, saving $100,000 on the project, according to Smith.
As for the problems with the old furniture that Rep. Smith said made it "dangerous," he couldn't provide any records to show documented issues with the furniture, "Could you ballpark or estimate the number of work orders that were filed to have furniture repaired in this building," Barr asked Smith, "No, I can't because it happened almost on a daily sort of basis," Smith said.
We filed a request with the House Clerk to find out whether any furniture repairs were ever documented in the House office building. In a letter dated Oct. 30, the clerk wrote, "The House does not maintain these records in its normal order of business. The State Budget and Control Board told us any documentation related to furniture repairs would be kept by the House. We still don't know how often or whether any furniture repairs were filed for the Blatt office building.
"It's definitely a 'let them eat cake' phenomenon," Crangle said as he and Landess looked through dozens of pictures of the old furniture from inside the Blatt Building. "And, those chairs look to be in pristine condition. I don't see a thing wrong with a single one of those chairs," Landess commented as she looked at a picture of dozens of arms chairs sitting in the state surplus warehouse.
"If it's unsafe and dangerous, why is it okay to sell it to the public? Why is it okay to sell it to other state agencies," Landess said as she looked over House spending records before our interview last week.
"It's been 34 years, so we don't anticipate replacing this again for a long time. So, we wanted to make sure we spent the public's dollars very wisely in this," Smith said. The project is not finished. The House plans to replace furniture in House committee offices in the next several months, according to Smith.