Military castoffs go on the auction block Surplus: Among the dingy, outdated items the government offers for sale, smart shoppers can likely find a gem or two -- at bargain prices.

September 16, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

FORT MEADE -- Explain this: Lot 83, consisting of a pair of Adams-Russell Model AR-40 demodulator units, sold for only $5, while the Hewlett-Packard spectrum analyzers of Lot 81 fetched $600.

Go figure.

Such are the vagaries of the monthly public auction of military surplus at Fort Meade.

From pickup trucks to anesthesia machines and camera lenses to dental chairs, this is the storm drain of the military procurement system, the grate that traps all the detritus -- the outgrown, overlooked, declassified, rejected, unwanted or otherwise cast aside by the government -- and offers it up to those who paid for it in the first place, the average taxpayer.

The Fort Meade Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office -- DRMO -- is one of three such retail outlets in Maryland. It moved in June from World War II-vintage quarters to a cavernous new 80,000-square-foot warehouse.

Open for general sales two days a week, the shop is a Wal-Mart for the dingy and outmoded, an ever-changing bazaar of forlorn-looking castoffs that sometimes, if you know just how to look, contains a gem.

Especially if your idea of a gem is an early-1970s burnt orange office chair, or maybe a gross of rubber fingertips.

Harry Biller, 35, of Silver Spring, ducked into Friday's monthly auction to see whether anybody else noticed the quartet of Sony color video printers coming up for bid. They did. The $2,500 winning bid was maybe half their resale value, Biller said -- provided the machines all work.

"It's a craps shoot," he said.

Biller, who said he works in video production, is a regular at both the auctions and the retail store, which sells smaller quantities of slightly less esoteric goods. The one thing you'll never find in either venue is any item with offensive or defensive military use.

Biller has bought a lot of audio-visual equipment and electronics gear over the years, he said, and sells enough to offset some of his investment. Mostly, he likes to pile it up in his basement.

"I don't buy anything new -- used cars, used electrical equipment," he said. "I told my wife, someday I'd like to buy house in the country, with some pine trees around it and a wandering path leading off through the woods, and at the end of it would be three 600-foot-long Quonset huts with forklifts and a heavy pad for cargo helicopters."

Ed Green, standing nearby in a brown zip-up work suit, grunted his approval. Green doesn't want to stockpile his booty, though; he said he is strictly a salvage dealer, like most of the 200 or more in attendance for the auction.

"I don't care what it is -- if I can buy it for a dollar and sell it for five, I'm going to buy it," Green said.

He travels to DRMOs throughout the region, from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Each outlet handles material from surrounding military installations. The Fort Meade facility takes castoffs from bases in the Baltimore-Washington area. The other Maryland shops are in Aberdeen and St. Mary's County.

The DRMOs had their heyday during the grim times of the Base Realignment and Closure commission. Every base closure meant boom times for salvage.

"We started getting bombarded with items," said Kevin Tourje, a zone manager who oversees 10 DRMOs in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

The Fort Meade outfit had its best-ever retail year last year, selling about $1.5 million in goods. That was about enough, Tourje said, to cover operating costs and the salaries of the facility's 26 government employees.

The BRAC torrent is tapering off, though, and this year Fort Meade will sell about $1 million, he said.

But retail sales are not the first goal of each facility, much to the chagrin of the surplus-hungry such as salvage broker Ed Green.

Before selling anything to the public, the DRMO first checks to see whether the excess goods can be used -- for no charge -- by other government agencies. If they all take a pass, the batch is shopped around to state agencies and certain nonprofits, such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

About 15 percent of the goods are disposed of in that manner; the rest goes to guys like Ed Green, chomping at the bit.

"They have no right to give this stuff to the states, or the Boy Scouts. Everything should be sold at public auction, because the public's the one that paid for it," he said.

Whether offered to charity or to profiteers, the surplus goods are hot properties. The Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, headquartered in Battle Creek, Mich., has set up a site on the Internet and offers sales via computer. Individual outlets advertise in newspapers and on the radio.

The store at Fort Meade is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and does a thriving business. The key is to come often, because the inventory always changes, said Sue Arteche, who started as a clerk 25 years ago and was promoted to manager this month.

On a recent day, there were old desks for $20, brass lamps for $3, answering machines for $5, a rainbow of IBM Selectrics for $10 each alongside endless components of the computers that replaced them, old sports jerseys for $1 and a set of the Code of Virginia for $1 a volume.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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