The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 27, 2013

Ojanpa: When good money goes awry

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

— What do presidential libraries, nearly 14,000 empty federal bank accounts, and bulletproof boards in Cold Spring schools have in common?

All are costing public money for purposes of dubious, even ludicrous, worth.

The review of these fiscal day brighteners begins with presidential libraries, those monuments to past presidents. With the opening of George W. Bush’s $250 million edifice in Texas, the number of these shrines now stands at 13.

Skipping over the fact that the term “Bush Library” is the premise for a thousand jokes, let’s see what we have in this new building:

Papers, emails, documents, some bent New York Trade Center beams, a pair of George W.’s cowboy boots, statues of the family dogs, etcetera.

Yes, you’re right. Presidential libraries are paid for through private donations (that these donations begin during a president’s time in office and that influential donors, by law, don’t have to be revealed is an ethical ox to gore another day).

But once these presidential libraries-cum-tourist gift shops are opened, their operations are turned over to a federal agency.

These 13 homages cost taxpayers $75 million last year. That’s not a lot in the federal scheme of things but certainly a questionable amount for  ensuring that folks can stop and shop at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library to pick up some Reagan golf balls — three for $12 — and a “Gippergear” denim shirt.

Another relative drop in the federal bucket — $890,000 — is being paid out by Uncle Sam this year for absolutely nothing.

It seems the government is paying that amount for bank service fees on 13,712 of its accounts that are all defunct.

The deal: When a federal agency gives out a grant, rather than write a check, it creates an account in a government-operated depository, and the grantee draws money out of that account.

But when the money runs out, the affected federal agency is served notice that it’s time to close the account.

But this, apparently, isn’t as easy as it sounds because it involves, like, paperwork and stuff. So those empty accounts just sit there, with the only money they’re involved with being the fees it costs for them to remain actively, uh, inactive.

The government says it continues to whittle away at closing these accounts. Meantime, I guess we should look on the bright side: Even more of those empty accounts cost us $2.1 million last year.

And now we come to those quasi-bulletproofed Cold Spring Schools.

Last week the public school district there showed off its bulletproof whiteboards that are designed to deter gun-wielding maniacs.

The school bought 170 of these 18-by-20-inch handheld boards at $300 each. A private business paid for half and the school district paid for the rest when a building project came in under budget.

The isn’t so much a tale of “leftover” public money spent imprudently as it is a story of wrongheadedness wrought by fear and frustration over school shootings.

In 2003 a gunman killed two students on Cold Spring school grounds, so Rocori’s vigilance about school safety is omnipresent.

But safety and one puny 18-by-20 board per classroom are not one and the same, no matter how revved up Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones is about it.

“This is the best development in school safety I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

In other words, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a ... whiteboard.

 

Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email bojanpa@mankatofreepress.com.