A $1.6 million logjam - cleared for $8,000 when moved from the public to the private sector

The News Tribune

Tacoma, WA - 8/27/02 -Thurston County's handling of a massive logjam on the Deschutes River suggests that there's a fair bit of inefficiency in the way government does business in this state.

Thurston County commissioners essentially threw up their hands in despair last February after winter floods deposited a hellacious tangle of logs, roots and branches on the Deschutes River north of the Waldrick Road bridge. The 1,200-foot-long logjam diverted the river's waters onto 22 adjacent lots and threatened the neighborhood with more flooding in the future.

The commissioners initially declared an emergency - but decided to leave the jam in place after spending more than $100,000 studying the problem. The consultant they hired reported that clearing the river could cost up to $1.6 million.

Fortunately, the owners of those 22 affected lots ignored the consultant. Earlier this month, they tackled the job themselves, with some outside assistance. They rented the necessary log-moving equipment from a local logger, who offered to operate it for free. County Commissioner Kevin O'Sullivan arranged for a jail work crew to create a path along the river for the equipment. Sullivan also found a nearby church whose members were willing to split the logs and donate them to the needy.

They finished the job in less than three weeks. The cost: $8,000 - one two-hundredth of the original $1.6 million estimate.

In defense of the county, the job they did was not the same one the commissioners gave up on last February.

The county's estimate was based on bids it got from commercial companies, which work for profit and do not employ volunteers. And that $1.6 million would have paid for a much larger project, one that included the creation of a bypass channel (at a cost of $1 million) and the stabilization of water-saturated soils (which didn't have to be stabilized in dry August).

The county would have removed the entire jam, too, at a cost of $400,000. The locals cut a channel through it wide enough to get the river flowing in its accustomed course.

But even taking all that into account, it's a safe bet that Thurston County would have spent far more than $8,000 doing the same job the locals did. And somebody should be asking why the county and its consultant felt impelled to turn the clearing of the jam into such a monumental and prohibitively expensive affair.

Lawmakers and other officials who write the rules that govern government contracts in Washington state would do well to examine just how this $1.6 million project became an $8,000 project as it moved from the public to the private sector.

(Published 12:30AM, August 27th, 2002)

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