Going, Going, Gone!

By Carol Ochs

The Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) in Virginia is living by the old adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Through the nationwide Public Surplus.com website, the agency has found a way to make money on old, broken, and otherwise unwanted goods while saving money on disposal costs. It’s a true win-win proposition, allowing the agency to raise some cash while promoting good stewardship.

Analyst Ron Pearson and Buyer/Inventory Manager Val Simons spearhead the park-authority effort that began as a pilot program about 10 years ago, primarily as a way to get rid of outdoor equipment. Over time, the sales have expanded to include everything from wood pallets and a pile of sand to a freezer and a lady’s hat. “We sell pretty much anything we think has some value,” says Pearson.

Simons estimates the agency is on track this fiscal year to make around $20,000 on the sale of 100 items that range in price from $1 to $2,000. When big-ticket items go up for sale, revenues can be even higher. An old carousel brought in $16,000 alone one year. The Public Surplus website is an eBay of sorts for public agencies. Potential buyers can see photos and descriptions of the items and then place bids. Pearson and Simons agree that the fun really begins for them when a bidding war breaks out and the sale price starts to climb.

Money made on the sales stays in the park authority. “That’s the great thing about this,” Pearson points out. “The county gives us the funds if we sell it. In the old days, anything that was sold went back into a central fund. Being able to keep the money here in the agency provides more of an incentive for sites and the agency to get rid of stuff.”

The cost of the program is measured only in staff time, and this project is just one of many tasks the staff performs. There is no fee to post items, and the buyer pays the commission.

What To Sell
Figuring out what to sell is the first step in the process. Some items are identified through the agency’s lifecycle-tracking process. Simons identifies other items through annual inventory surveys, questioning site managers about their plans for old equipment. Finally, staff members at park sites can propose items to sell. As the benefits are being realized, more items are being offered.

Once items are identified, they are sent to an equipment-facility maintenance area that is used as a staging point for the surplus goods. “That is a lesson learned,” says Pearson. “We did try to sell at sites at one point, but the logistics of trying to coordinate, communicate, and keep track of who was picking up what and when was very difficult.” The centralized location provides “more control and more security.”

At the staging area, items are photographed for the Public Surplus web page and stored until buyers pick them up. Photos and descriptions are as complete as possible to save a lot of questions later. Pearson has found it best to take photos when the items arrive at the staging area, rather than at the sites, just in case parts or pieces get lost or are waylaid on their journey.

Photograph The Fine Print
This isn’t a time for crafty marketing. Descriptions should clearly state when an item is not running or is being offered for parts or for repair only. When it comes to photos, “If it’s got a flat tire, show the flat tire,” advises Simons. “Don’t try to pump it up.” Smartphone cameras now make this part of the process simple.

Photos of bar codes and serial numbers should be taken whenever possible to establish an audit trail. Those photos can come in handy for other reasons, too. The FCPA has been contacted a few times by local police who thought people were trying to unlawfully sell park-authority goods. By keeping track of specific coding, the FCPA can quickly identify that the goods were obtained legally. It’s not uncommon for people to buy the agency’s goods and fix them up for resale, and even though the park authority provides titles to goods such as boats and trailers, buyers don’t always remember to register the new titles.

Simons has developed a tracking system that allows her to keep close tabs on where goods are in the surplus process. She keeps folders for equipment identified for sale, current auctions, items sold pending payment, items paid pending pickup, and items picked up awaiting a cash sheet to be posted—the point at which revenue can be declared.

New Stories For Old Items
But this story is about more than money. There are some great human-interest tales, too, when the team discovers how the auctioned goods are going to be reused. “Something that might have ended up in the trash actually is making somebody happy, and I think that’s really nice,” Simons notes.

For instance, a lady’s Derby-type hat was found in a hat box at one of the agency’s historic properties. It was purchased by a woman who wanted to cheer up a hat-collecting friend who was undergoing chemotherapy. An aging camera was purchased by a retired veteran who enjoyed tinkering with old photo equipment. An outdoor freezer that had not worked in 10 years went to a baker opening a new wholesale bakery outlet. Though the freezer needed fixing up, the buyer figured the $1,700 purchase price was a good deal when compared to the $15,000 cost of a new freezer. Simons envisioned some old turnstiles that sold at auction being used to make a man cave or home-movie theater the talk of the neighborhood.

Because PublicSurplus.com is a nationwide site, the items up for bid can wind up just about anywhere. FCPA tractors have gone to Iowa and South Dakota. Some 1940s furniture that Pearson was convinced was headed to the junk heap was purchased by a collector in Arizona. Paddle boats and canoes that sold on the site were destined for a resort in West Africa, and some generators were headed to North Africa.

Ingredients For Success
Pearson and Simons share credit for the project with Facilities Maintenance employees Patty Edmonds, Thomas Donovan, and Jesse Bradford, who help to process goods through the central facility. Each plays his or her own part in the effort yet work together as a team.

Through trial and error, the team has found there is a bigger market for some items than others. Electronics, TVs, and old computers tend not to sell. Staff members have found it easier to dispose of those goods through Fairfax County’s E-cycling program. Anything with John Deere on it does tend to sell well. If small items don’t sell well individually, the agency has found success by bundling the items and trying again.

Pearson and Simons feel there are several key ingredients to running a successful program:

  • Form a dedicated team of three to five people with responsibility for the project.
  • Provide an incentive to encourage staff members to sell items.
  • Design a good tracking system.
  • Keep small equipment in a secure location.
  • Offer truthful, detailed descriptions of the goods for sale.
  • Maintain good communication among team members throughout the process. (The FCPA team stays in close touch via email.)

In a continuing effort to build the program, Simons has recently started coordinating with the FCPA’s Public Information Office to alert park-authority Twitter followers when some of the more unexpected park items are posted for sale. For example, one tweet showcased a piano for auction.

The team has found that some old-schoolers may find it difficult to part with their goods. Hanging on to equipment to cannibalize it for parts can be a tough tradition to break. However, Pearson says part of the job is to educate staff that, if an item still has some useful life, “you get a lot more money by selling it than saving it for old parts that you may or may not ever use.” The team likes to remind folks that the money received can be put toward the purchase of new equipment. Less junk, more money. Something worth considering.

Carol Ochs, FCPA, is the Public Information Office for the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia. Reach her at (703) 324-8761, or Carol.Ochs@fairfaxcounty.gov.