Price survey in D.C. suburbs sets COLAs


June 29, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- What does a canned ham sell for these days? Does a disposable diaper for an 18-pound baby come cheap?

Is a frozen dinner with turkey, whipped potatoes, peas and fruit compote a budget-buster? How much does a three-piece casserole dish set sell for?

The federal government is trying to answer these Important life questions, and it has turned to you, Maryland, for help in finding the answers.

For the past four years, a private research company has been sending researchers to the Washington suburbs to scour malls and note prices on everything from wigs to whiskey. The point of the consumer survey, paid for by the government, is to find out how much the average federal worker spends for day-to-day living expenses.

Why? Workers in remote locales -- including Guam, Hawaii and Alaska -- pay extra for their daily bread and just about everything else. So the government grants them cost-of-living allowances (COLAs) to give them the same buying power as their Washington area counterparts.

Before it distributes the COLAs, however, the government first determines what products the average federal employee buys -- and how much that worker spends. So twice a year, a team of government-paid shoppers hits the stores and interviews shopkeepers in Maryland, Washington and Virginia -- where most federal workers live -- to determine the price of consumer goods. In Maryland, the survey targets Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The survey is painfully detailed. For example, for a box of frozen vegetables, it lists the kind of vegetable (peas) and the preparation (no sauce). For a set of dishes, it details the number of pieces (20) and the pattern (beige with a fruit and flower motif). For canned fruit, it specifies the variety (peaches) and the cut (small slices or bigger halves).

There's a method to this madness, said Tom Peiffer, vice president of Runzheimer International, the Wisconsin-based consulting firm that conducts the surveys.

In the past, government researchers have been criticized for compiling lists of consumer goods that are too general and don't factor in higher costs in remote areas. The more detailed the sample, he said, the more accurate the COLA.

Runzheimer instructs its researchers to try to find specific brand names and retailers so that the products surveyed are nearly identical, the biggest difference being whether they were found in Wheaton, Md., or Waialua, Hawaii.

The $160,000-a-year survey, overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), includes more than 12,000 price quotes from surveys of more than 3,000 outlets.

COLAs were started shortly after World War II to entice federal workers to take jobs in isolated areas. The program comes under congressional review next year, Mr. Peiffer said.

"This is certainly an emotional issue you're talking about -- pay -- and the whole notion of whether or not the allowances should continue," he said, adding that funding for the survey could take a hit when the program is reviewed.

The latest round of the price survey ended this month, and the government published the information in the Federal Register. The survey covered the essentials -- food, housing, clothing, recreation, transportation and a range of services such as health care.

A large part of the survey is dedicated to the cost of anything edible.

First, the meat-and-potatoes figures. Literally. The survey lists everything from the price of a boneless round roast (not too lean) to the cost of a 10-pound bag of potatoes (the cheapest brand). And there are the prices of sin -- a cheeseburger and fries, vanilla ice cream, a package of Oreo cookies.

The cost of clothing is included as well. For men: three-piece suits and black, wing-tip shoes. For women: gold earrings and crisp white blouses with "minimum trim."

In addition to store-bought goods, the survey includes a range of services -- from baby-sitting a child to unclogging a drain. Medical care also is listed -- and not as it applies to human beings. Researchers were told to find the typical veterinary fee for a heartworm test for a small dog.

The cost of living, it seems, never ends. Cemetery costs and funeral expenses also are listed in the data.

The survey includes the costs of entertainment -- health club, 18 holes of golf on a weekend, a night of bowling (without shoe rentals), video rentals, movies, music, including compact discs by country singer Garth Brooks and aging rocker Rod Stewart.

The work seems never to end.

"Someone here will be doing something on this study just about every day," Mr. Peiffer said. "What we want is a scientific and objective measure of how much it costs to live."

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