When the Bottom Line Trumps Real Freedom, We Lose
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 6-5-2005.
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If you really want to make my blood boil, just say the words, "government contractor." After 36 years of government service, both military and civilian, I know of what I write.
I've heard too many times that contractors are less expensive than government employees. Balderdash!
Recently at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, we were forced to have a contractor paint a ship bottom instead of using our own paint shop. One week after the contractor finished and left, the paint began peeling off the ship in huge sheets. It seems they had used the wrong paint and didn't prepare the surface properly. To make matters worse, the government employees were blamed for the re-work.
Then there is that little project I had at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California where I added a ship to the Navy to escort submarines on sea trial. A similar project by a private shipyard on the East Coast cost about $3 million to start up and almost $2 million per year to operate. We did the same job for $585,000 in start-up costs and $750,000 per year in operational costs. Same number of days of support. Bigger and better ship, too. But remember, contractors are less expensive if we listen to the current administration in power.
Contractors follow a contract to the letter. That is not a bad thing. But if they finish and things still don't work, they either get more funding, or it is left to the government employees to get working. Usually we (the government employees) were left holding the proverbial bag.
There are some things that are just better done by government employees. When I started working in naval shipyards, we had 10 naval shipyards. Not only could we repair ships; we could build them, too.
Soon, if the Base Realignment and Closure Commission follows the Defense Department guidelines, we will have only three naval shipyards left. Norfolk, Puget Sound and Pearl Harbor will be all that remain. None can build ships any more. Most of the talented and skilled employees they had are retired or dead.
We are left with private shipyards to build all of our ships. Naval shipyards provided competition to them. They can't today. The naval shipyards can compete with the private suppliers on repairs and do it quite well.
There are some other concerns that have contributed to my poor attitude toward contractors. They don't care unless it stops them from making a profit. Government employees can't work for profit. If we come in under budget, the funds get returned for other work maybe by a contractor. Now, that is real incentive to do a good job.
Shipyards that overhaul and refuel nuclear submarines used to be able to do the job in about 14 months. Some contractor was hired to come in and make us better and more efficient. Computer systems were added to track the work, order material and account for every little item, no matter what. Costs skyrocketed almost overnight. Now a 24- to 30-month overhaul and refueling is considered normal.
The head of Naval Sea Systems Command has set a goal of getting the length back to 20 months. He hasn't asked how it got above 20 months, yet but he has got some contractors working on the problem.
Trust me, it may never be solved.
What has this got to do with the Santa Clarita Valley, you ask? Let me see how I can tie it together this time.
You pay taxes lots of taxes. Real estate, income, you name it. Those taxes pay for government work, including ship repair. Do you want your tax money spent the best way possible? Of course you do. You "west-siders" who pay all those taxes to L.A. County would like to see more of it returned to the SCV, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you also like to see your federal taxes spent wisely? I'll bet you would.
As this "war on terrorism" drags on, our Navy is stretched very thin. Ships are being over-utilized and poorly maintained. There isn't time and money to do the job properly, "they" say. "They" are usually contractors who have been hired to look in to such problems.
All they have to do is ask any sailor or naval shipyard employee. We could have given the same answer for a lot less money.
But we've been assured that "they" have "their" best people working on the problem. None of those people knows much about ships but that doesn't matter. Squeeze another deployment out of a ship and crew that is already overworked. Delay a repair until it fails completely and puts the ship out of action.
Your sons and daughters from the SCV are on those ships and planes. Thank you, Halliburton, General Dynamics and all the other contractors, for making this possible. Enjoy your profits. None of you will have to attend a memorial service, should the worst-case scenario occur. It won't affect your bottom line.
But our lives are touched every time a single sailor, airman, soldier or Marine is lost or wounded. They don't care about your bottom line. They just want to make or country free and safe.
They care about real freedom. So do I.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.