For taxpayer, cost of federal do-good effort out of control

April 20, 2003|By JAY HANCOCK

THE CHIMES, a Baltimore nonprofit group, is close to an agreement with the government to employ mentally disabled janitors in the Ronald Reagan building in downtown Washington.

Sounds wonderful, right?

What if I told you that the deal and others like it threaten the existence of a 27-year-old family cleaning business in Cockeysville? What if the deal would wipe out scores of union jobs with good health and vacation benefits held by the Reagan building's present janitors?

What if you knew that the Chimes didn't bid on price for the Reagan contract but won it through a massive and growing government set-aside program for the disabled? What if this program charged taxpayers more than regular cleaning companies - sometimes more than double?

And what if I told you that the disabled people who participate in the program see little of the money that taxpayers spend on it? What if they often make less than the people they replace?

All true, unfortunately.

I wanted to get the Chimes' side of the story and made a date to see its president, Terry A. Perl. Less than an hour after I told a spokesman what kinds of questions I wanted to ask, Perl canceled.

He didn't want to "participate" in the column, said the public relations guy.

Can't blame him. I wouldn't participate either if someone were going to ask me about Anthony Bailey or Ellen Shelton. Assisted by 70 colleagues, they clean the Reagan building for $8.22 an hour plus health insurance. Not great pay, but better than what else is available, and they'll probably lose their jobs if the Chimes takes over.

"Right now, anywhere you go, it's hard to find a job, period," says Bailey, 32, who holds a second job cleaning movie theaters. "The maximum rate is $6.15 an hour. You're not even talking about no health insurance benefits. And I have a 2-year-old son."

Ellen Shelton, who will turn 60 in June, works the Reagan fifth floor as well as in a Landover clothing shop to pay her $805 monthly rent.

What happens if the Chimes comes in? She pauses.

"I might be in a shelter somewhere. Or on the street."

Let's make one thing clear: The care given by the Chimes and similar organizations to the mentally retarded and mentally ill, traditionally the refuse of society, is a blessing of modern history.

But let's also grant that, for any societal good, costs should be in line with benefits. In the government's set-aside program for contractors employing the disabled under the 1971 Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, costs seem out of control.

One cost: The JWOD program, which grew 23 percent last year to $1.47 billion in government revenue, wipes out jobs for people such as Bailey and Shelton who have few other prospects and are not protected by the (thin, I admit) safety net that exists for the unemployed disabled.

Another cost: More than half the business at Safeguard Maintenance Corp., the for-profit Cockeysville company fighting to keep from losing the Reagan-building job, is threatened by nonprofits employing the disabled.

And another: The General Services Administration found that nonprofit JWOD cleaning firms charge the government more than for-profit firms such as Safeguard, perhaps because hiring JWOD outfits is mandatory at many federal buildings, and there is no bidding process.

When disabled janitors at nonprofit firms cleaned GSA buildings last year, the agency's cost was about 1 percent less than the "midpoint" in a range of local custodial prices published by the Building Owners and Managers Association, according to Paul Lynch, an assistant commissioner at GSA. But when for-profit contractors did the job, GSA's cost was 17 percent less than the midpoint.

Sometimes the gap is wider.

Research by Safeguard President H.T. Brown shows that the Melwood Horticultural Training Center, a disabled-employing nonprofit in Upper Marlboro that is also gunning for his business, charges $4.14 a square foot per year to clean an Agriculture Department building in downtown Washington. Melwood does not dispute the figure.

The average 2001 cleaning cost in downtown Washington was $1.50 per square foot, less than half as much, says the building owner association.

High costs might not be so bad if much money flowed to the disabled people it was supposed to help. It doesn't. JWOD contractors often pay disabled employees less than the government-required wage for able-bodied workers on the same job site.

How much less and how often is unclear.

Annmarie Hart-Bookbinder, spokeswoman for the Committee for Purchase, the agency that oversees the JWOD program, said she believes that most JWOD employees are paid the full rate. But Robert Sullivan, a top executive at NISH, a group once known as National Industries for the Severely Handicapped that allocates most JWOD contracts, said he thinks "a majority" of NISH's nonprofit contractors pay disabled workers less than full rate.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.