essays and articles by david g allen

For Government, Trailers Make Sense



Ten years ago, I attended a meeting at Jackson’s Mill. One member of our group arrived a few minutes late. He entered the meeting room with a panicked look on his face and asked us if we had heard about the fire at the Governor’s mansion. Before we could collect ourselves from news of this tragedy, he uttered the punch line, “It burned to the axles before the fire crews got there!”

Well, it was funny and we all laughed.  But we knew in our hearts that the Capitol complex was run like a rundown trailer park.

When the late Bill Ritchie was re-appointed Highway Commissioner in 1985, one of his first tasks was to repair the fountain in front of the DOH office tower on Washington Street.  In its less than 20-year life, the fountain hadn’t worked for years because of lack of maintenance.  The empty concrete vessel had become a joke.  State workers called it the “Yeti trap” and chirped that, sooner or later, we would finally catch the elusive abominable snowman.

Upon taking office, Gov. Bob Wise learned that the Capitol’s priceless chandelier nearly fell from its haunt because of “lack of maintenance.”  The lamp’s support cable had frayed to its last strands.  Shortly thereafter, we also learned that structural steel in the dome had cracked.  And we also learned that the dome itself needed extensive work.

Then, we learned that the Capitol’s roof leaked.  The reason?  Once again, a “lack of maintenance.”  Money for repairs was not forthcoming, so the job was initially recommended as an Economic Development Grant project.

And since, we have learned that the Capitol complex elevators failed to meet building and safety code requirements.  The answer to that “lack of maintenance” question was to quit inspecting the elevators all together.

What started out as a redecorating project at the Governor’s mansion in 2005 quickly ballooned into a structural repair nightmare after the contractor removed the tarpaper.  Again, a “lack of maintenance” had allowed little problems to fester into big ones.  We have coughed up $3 million to rehab an 80-year-old building that could have been razed and built new for less money.  But then again, it wouldn’t have the charm and ambiance of Tom Hank’s money pit, would it?

And now for the pièce de résistance—the Capitol cafeteria.  This eatery gave new meaning to La Cuillère Grasse (The Greasy Spoon.)   In fact, if the kitchen grease had caught fire, then the Capitol would have burned to the axles before fire crews got there!  Fortunately, nervous cockroaches drew attention to the fire hazard which, in turn, prompted the health department to close the cafeteria.  I am told that cockroaches are sensitive to fire hazards and need no special training to alert humans that danger is at hand.

Don’t laugh.  The two prior state capitol buildings weren’t lousy with cockroaches and they each burned to the ground!

To blame government workers or elected politicians for failing to maintain government buildings is pointless and irrelevant.  Unlike homeowners, government workers have no ownership interest in government-owned real estate.  Unlike homeowners, the government has no interest in creating equity because the property will likely never be sold.  Unlike homeowners, government never dies nor does government ever move to another state.  And government is never financially at risk for its farm—the taxpayers and their grandkids are.

The run-down condition of our most majestic buildings is a story that clearly defines the difference between individual property rights in a democracy and government control of property.  When government is in sole charge of property, the decline begins.  And then political leaders ceaselessly solicit more and more tax money to address the needs of the state. 

“Give us $3 million and we’ll fix the mansion once and for all.” 

“Give us $15 million and we’ll fix the roof leaks once and for all.” 

And so goes the begging until you are mentally conditioned to expect such cycles as inevitable.  Then they become so.

State workers and elected leaders can do no better than they have done in the past.  But the fault is not theirs.  It is ours. 

We should never have expected them to take care of fountains, elevators, crystal chandeliers, or gilded domes in the first place.  If these people wanted to manage real estate, they would have hired on with Donald Trump, not the state.

We should have bought each agency its requisite number of trailers and, when they were trashed, replaced them with new trailers. 

As for the governor’s residence, we’d probably be obliged to buy him a nice double-wide.  (Without a fire place, of course.)

David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV

"For Government, Trailers Make Sense" appeared in the December 1, 2006 edition of the West Virginia State Journal and was reprinted in the December 3, 2006 issue of the (Clarksburg) Sunday Exponent-Telegram.





Copyright 1990-2006  David G. Allen