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Alaska lawmakers shouldn't spend $100,000 on furniture design

Dermot Cole
istockphoto

FAIRBANKS -- The Alaska Legislature intends to spend up to $100,000 in 2014 designing the furniture for its Anchorage offices. Then it will decide whether to actually buy furniture.

With multibillion-dollar deficits now a reality, the state must cut costs and set priorities. Since lawmakers will be preaching frugality in 2014, they can start by foregoing furniture design.

This is a time to rearrange the deck chairs. Lawmakers should have started with the presumption that they will recycle all the usable desks, chairs, tables, bookcases and other furnishings from their Anchorage offices.

They didn't do that, but it's not too late for the Legislative Council to take a conservative approach, instead of setting out on a path aimed at spending between $1 million and $1.4 million on new furniture.

The Legislative Council, a group of 14 lawmakers that handles legislative business between sessions, voted 9-1 at a meeting in November to authorize its chairman, Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, to negotiate a furniture design deal of up to $100,000 with the owners of the legislative office building.

With the Legislature already facing a fivefold rent increase to cover renovation and expansion of its leased Anchorage space, under another no-bid deal negotiated by Hawker with Pfeffer Development, lawmakers need to do more to save money.

There was next to no discussion of how to save on furniture at the November meeting when the council approved the furniture design plan.

Kenai Republican Sen. Pete Micciche said it was a "badge of honor" to have hand-me-down office furniture and he believed that lawmakers should get "full use of state resources."

"The idea that we have brand new shiny furniture in each office is something that we should guard against, in my opinion," he said. But he voted for the design contract.

Hawker, the chief proponent of furniture design, said Micciche's was "a point well noted" and that the contract would allow the Legislature to inventory its old furniture. 

“We discovered some pretty awful things about our furniture,” said Hawker, describing the collection as a "hodgepodge."

"I'd say about half of what was over there is really not suitable for putting back in place at this time," he said. "We will need furnishings, one way or another."

Trouble is, the Legislature doesn't need design professionals to decide if pre-owned desks and chairs are worth keeping. An accurate and detailed inventory should have taken place before anything was touched. That would have been the logical thing to do.

It appears to me that legislators are looking for new furniture, not badges of honor.

Hawker said deciding on furnishings is a “necessary evil,” an “essential part of a real estate developmental process” that requires professional help.

The only dissenting vote to the $100,000 plan came from Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, who said he was a “little nervous” about having a “big furniture Tupperware party here.”

“Call me gun shy and I’m just going to be casting a protest vote,” said Stoltze. The rest of the group should have joined him.

Once Hawker negotiates the design deal, architects and designers are to come up with options and prepare a bid package of 30 to 70 pages. After the bids are in, lawmakers will decide whether to buy furniture.

Bob O’Neill, the project manager for Pfeffer Development, told the Legislative Council that he agreed with Hawker about the poor condition of the furnishings.

“In seeing the building emptied out, we think it’s a great opportunity to start over and really enhance the work environment for all the employees in the building as well,” he said.

“The opportunity here is to standardize not only the office spaces, but the furnishing within them and also provide for flexibility in the future,” he said.

He said that new furnishings could help create a “really inviting work environment.”

“At one point we’ll probably come in with about a dozen different chairs and you can all sit-test them and pick which ones you like,” O'Neill said.

Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said the Legislature has not made a major furniture purchase in about 20 years.

“We have identified quite a bit of furniture right now that we are sending to surplus,” she said.

“Anything that is worth saving after our temporary space here, if we do get this new furniture, we will look throughout the state, if there is anything that is worth saving, sending it out to our other offices, sending it to Juneau," she said.

Wrangell Republican Rep. Peggy Wilson said that people may think that just because some furniture is in storage, “people may think that they’re top-notch items.” She said that some items are scratched and have the veneer coming off of them.

“Just because we have excess and that it’s stored somewhere doesn’t mean that it’s high-quality product always,” Wilson said.

Fairbanks Republican Sen. John Coghill said he agreed with Hawker about the need to consult professionals on furniture design. He said the issue is an “Anchorage decision in my view," but that he wants to figure out “how to recoup any kind of value” from the old furnishings.

The Legislative Council does not need to spend $100,000 on furniture design. The way to recoup value is to keep using the furniture that has value and give everyone a badge of honor.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole