Thursday, November 17, 2011

Throwing Away Money

Once again, local elected officials seem to be in competition with the Pentagon to see who can waste the most taxpayers' money. A high school board in north suburban Chicago (Glenbrook District 225) wants to spend $3,500,000 to replace the grass on their football fields with artificial turf, and it is willing to distort the projected costs in order to justify the expenditure to the public.

In order to make the artificial turf look like it isn't as expensive as it seems, the school board points out that the artificial turf is less expensive to maintain than natural grass. Perhaps it is, but how much less? The board estimates that the artificial turf will cost only $36,500 per year to maintain compared to the $80,000 it now costs to maintain the natural grass. That is an annual savings of $43,500, which means it would take 80.5 years for the savings on maintenance to equal the $3,500,000 cost of the artificial turf. The board, in an apparent attempt to make the savings look larger than it really is, said the cost of maintaining natural grass would be $800,000 over ten years. Apparently they hoped we wouldn't notice that they were comparing ten years' costs for maintaining natural grass to one years' costs for maintaining artificial turf.

But that isn't the only problem with the figures the school board is using to justify buying artificial turf. The school board plans on borrowing money to pay for the artificial turf, so it would have to pay interest on the money it borrows, which means the turf would actually cost more than $3,500,000, which means it would take even longer than 80.5 years for the maintenance savings to equal the costs of the turf.

But wait, there's more. Because, according to the artificial turf industry, artificial turf only lasts about ten years, it would have to be re-installed seven times over the eighty-year period. The costs of each re-installation could be as much as several hundred thousand dollars, so that the total cost of installation and re-installation would be about $7,000,000, or twice as much as the $3,500,000 initial cost. In other words, it would take about forever for the cost of the artificial turf to be offset by the decreased maintenance costs.

But don't stop there. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of artificial turf. When it is uninstalled every ten years, it has to be disposed of, like a giant carpet taken out of a flooded basement. And if granulated rubber, which is made from old tires, is used to fill in the field, as is commonly done, and as was done on the artificial turf that the local park district installed, the entire field essentially becomes a big, smelly waste dump, complete with the possibility of air and water pollution from the rubber.

The school board wants us to believe that artificial turf is good because students can play on it even if it is wet, so the students could play outside in the rain and snow, instead of staying dry and healthy by playing inside when the weather is bad. The school board doesn't mention that they have just spent oodles of money building and renovating their indoor pools and field houses and other gym facilities. There is no reason for the kids to play outside during bad weather.

On the same day that the news story ran about the school board's plan to buy artificial turf, another story ran saying that up to 20 percent of the students at one of the two schools in the district are getting subsidized school lunches so they will have enough to eat. This school district is normally considered quite affluent, but in this difficult economy, families are having trouble feeding their kids. And yet, the school board wants to spend millions on artificial grass. Why? Because a neighboring school district has artificial grass.

The people who want the artificial turf originally told the school board they would be able to raise a million dollars in private donations from the sports boosters clubs to help pay for the turf. But they changed their estimate, and now say they could only raise about $500,00 over four years. Apparently they found out that people don't have as much money to throw around as they once did. The next time someone complains about the federal or state government wasting billions of dollars, we might want to remember the little school district that wasted millions, and tried to fool the taxpayers into thinking it was really saving them money.

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