SHARON Agency for blind saves money with federal surplus

Buying equipment and supplies from a federal surplus program leaves more money available for direct client services, an agency official says.
SHARON, Pa. -- "This carpet is federal surplus," said Jonathan Fister as he led a visitor along a corridor of offices at the Keystone Blind Association building on Stambaugh Avenue.
"These picture frames are federal surplus," he continued, pointing out pictures in the same hallway. "Most of the office furniture is federal surplus, too."
Furnishings aren't the only federal surplus materials found at the association.
Fister, president and chief executive officer, said his agency has been taking advantage of the program for the past 12 years, picking up an array of items at just "pennies on the dollar."
There are large commercial freezers and various other pieces of equipment for the kitchen, lift truck/skid loaders in the garage and at the Dayton Way workshop, and even a Yamaha keyboard in the auditorium -- all bought from the federal surplus program run in Pennsylvania by the state Department of General Services.
There's a simple reason for buying things like copiers, paper products, calculators and photo equipment the government no longer needs, Fister said.
"We can spend money on client services rather than equipment needs," he explained.
All those purchases haven't gone unnoticed.
Honored: The Keystone Blind Association was named "Donee of the Year" in Pennsylvania by the surplus program for 2000, an honor Fister said was bestowed because the agency buys such a variety of items and uses them in such a broad context.
Fister said that the surplus program is basically free and that what local governments and nonprofit groups such as his are doing is just paying the government a handling fee for the items they buy.
"We've gotten well over $200,000 worth of products for less than $20,000," he said. "I can't remember all the prices, but it's cheap."
Much of the material is used, like the vision screening equipment that now graces the association's eye clinic examination room, but some of it is brand new.
The association bought a large number of brown folding chairs the federal government had bought for U.S. Census workers in 1990. They cost $1 each and many came in their original boxes, Fister said.
A huge freezer also came still packed in its original crate.
How did association employees move it into place? With a tow motor bought from the federal surplus program, Fister said.
In Harrisburg, Hermitage: The Department of General Services maintains just two surplus material warehouses in Pennsylvania, one in Harrisburg and the other on Industrial Road in Hermitage.
Fister, who makes frequent business trips to Harrisburg, said he always travels in a minivan and often brings back a van load of material.
When the association visits the warehouse in Hermitage, "We haul it out by the truckload," he said.
There have been some lemons, but the warehouse will take back items that don't work or the buyer can't use, Fister said.
"The people at federal surplus kind of have an idea of what our need is," Fister said, noting they will frequently call when they have items they think the association might want.
That's how the association got eight Xerox copiers for $100 each when a federal mining office in Boyers, Pa., got all new copy machines, he said.
Safeguard: Program regulations prevent buyers from selling surplus items for a profit.
Most purchases have to be kept at least 18 months (two years for vehicles, and the association has bought a few of those) before they can be sold, Fister said.
He isn't shy about touting the program's benefits.
He doesn't want to see business at the Hermitage warehouse drop to a level where the state closes it, so he makes it a point to tell others about what is available.
"It's a blessing to have it so close," he said.

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