By Doug McKelway, ,
Published December 20, 2015
Taxpayers shell out $52,000 a year to maintain the home of Black History Month founder Carter Woodson. Yet the tiny, dilapidated row house in northwest Washington D.C., with a "No Trespassing" sign and iron bars blocking the front door and windows hasn’t seen a visitor in the seven years since the National Park Service bought it for $2.1 million and designated it a National Historic Site.
Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla.,points to the house as one tiny symbol in a sea of dysfunction in the National Park Service. The Service, with its comparatively small budget, is, he says, a microcosm for wasteful spending in the federal government.
A report released Tuesday by Coburn's office finds the National Park Service devotes huge portions of its budget to the purchase of more and more federal properties and land, even while the country’s most treasured national parks are falling into disrepair and neglect.
His report documents a federal agency that is top heavy with bureaucracy and management, but badly mangles its spending priorities.
"This is an agency that spends $650 million a year administering a $2.6 billion budget," says Coburn -- a ratio he calls, "outlandish."
His report cites dozens of cases of waste. The Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in the San Francisco Bay area, for example, averages less than 10 visitors a day. "With nine employees, the National Park Service often has more staff working the grounds, than daily visitors," the report says.
Yet, Coburn doesn't blame the Park Service, which fought against the O'Neill home historical designation. He blames Congress. "There is no ribbon-cutting ceremony for taking out the trash, fixing a broken railing or filling a pothole," he says.
"Congress continues to add things – ‘parks’ - that aren't significant in terms of national interest in a declining budget. What we have is our most treasured resources, the big parks, with maintenance backlogs in excess of $2 billion."
The report catalogues a litany of unfilled potholes, crumbling stairs and deteriorating infrastructure in many of the nation’s most visited national parks. "Look at the Grand Canyon," says Coburn. "They're not even replacing water lines that are 50 years old. They can't even flush the toilets, because they're not doing the critical maintenance that's needed."
He adds, "If you continue to add federal land and federal parks, what you are going to do is make this problem worse."
His report also documents many other cases of frivolous spending: a Park Ranger sent to Italy to judge an Italian Film Festival; an antique car show in Michigan; a wine tasting train in Ohio. The Service spent $731,000 to find stains on St Louis's Gateway Arch - but none of that money actually went to clean the stains.
As Congress gets to work on a budget conference, Coburn’s report and 50 others his staff has compiled over the last nine years on government waste provide no shortage of ammunition for members intent on cutting spending.
"Look at federal government IT," Coburn says. "We spent $84 billion a year on it and $42 billion is wasted. Where’s the management for that?" he asks.