Federal employees flex their benefits in low-cost gyms Workers keeping fit at taxpayer expense

August 04, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- At the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service on Constitution Avenue, your tax dollars are at work keeping bureaucrats strong at a health club where employees work out for free. Annual cost to the public: $525,000.

The cost was on the verge of growing higher this year when the IRS set out to buy private health club memberships for 125 employees based six blocks away. The half-mile trip to the headquarters gym was too inconvenient, the agency said. But when the plan piqued the interest of a congressman and the General Accounting Office, the IRS dropped the idea during the past two weeks.

The IRS is hardly alone in providing free, well-equipped employee health clubs at government expense. Though most federal agencies offset the cost of in-house fitness centers by charging relatively cheap dues, at least eight others in Washington let taxpayers pick up the bill. And another agency that does charge dues, the Justice Department, commissioned a $350,000 renovation this year at taxpayer expense. Add that to the costs of the nine dues-free gyms for the year and it exceeds $1.6 million.

"It's a classic waste of money," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that regularly ridicules the budget. "It would be really great if all Americans could have their employers pay for them to be fit as a fiddle, but it just doesn't work that way."

Government fitness advocates defend health club spending by citing the increased productivity and lower health care costs of physically fit employees, such as the invigorated workers cited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1968 after a year of supervised exercise.

But it's hard to put a price tag on the benefits, and a GAO report two months ago said that such studies have never lasted long enough to be valid. The report concluded that doing such a study correctly probably would "cost more than the [fitness] programs themselves."

Congress has never had much to say about the expense of the in-house fitness clubs. One reason might be its own gym in a House of Representatives office building, with its bargain-rate dues of $100 a year for swimming, weightlifting, basketball, paddle ball, exercise bikes, treadmills, a steam room and other facilities. Membership in a private club with similar facilities would easily cost six times that amount.

It takes eight employees to keep the House gym running, while a smaller exercise center in the Senate, where entrance is free, employs four. But other costs are buried in the overall maintenance and operation figures for the buildings housing the gyms, and even the most nit-picky staffers of the appropriations committees claim not to know how much it costs to keep the gyms running.

Other federal gyms have more definite price tags. The Department of Transportation's gym, with its free membership for all federal employees, will cost $405,000 to run this year.

Among the other no-dues federal gyms, NASA's costs $125,000 per year, while the Environmental Protection Agency's (there are two EPA Washington gyms, including one just across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia) cost $104,000, not counting rent. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (which charges a one-time fee of $35 but no annual dues) paid $87,000 to run its gym last year, not including rent, while the Federal Reserve Board's gym cost $30,360, also not including rent.

The cheapest of the bunch was the Office of Thrift Supervision, with its small, unstaffed facility, at $8,832 (again, not counting rent). Spokesmen for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Administration for Children and Families couldn't come up with cost estimates.

A large part of the costs of the IRS and DOT gyms is the "rental" of floor space from the government's General Services Administration. The IRS, for example, pays a private contractor $313,000 a year to run its gym, but agency spokesman Henry Holmes says the rest of the $525,000 annual cost is for maintenance and rental costs for space that it would be using anyway.

But like many federal agencies, the IRS long ago outgrew its headquarters building and now rents space in several other buildings around town, making all its floor space valuable.

No other agency in Washington, however, has apparently ever proposed buying private health club memberships for its employees until the IRS did so earlier this year.

When Representative Scott L. Klug, R-Wis., heard about it from a friend of an IRS employee, he didn't believe it at first. A former television news reporter, Mr. Klug figured the tale was like most news tips: too juicy to be true.

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