It’s disturbing to learn Army families are encountering so many problems with unsafe, substandard and overpriced base housing that two-thirds would move off-base if they could afford it.
As The Post and Courier’s Thomas Novelly reports, the Army inspector general turned up complaints about lead-based paint, mold, asbestos, open sewage, overpriced rent and retaliation when residents complain. The IG report was based on 116 sessions with residents, 1,180 surveys, 1,023 document reviews and 227 interviews with garrison commanders and housing personnel at 49 Army bases, including Columbia’s Fort Jackson.
A new report from the Army found that privatized family housing at nearly 50 of the branch's bases, including Fort Jackson in Columbia, cited wide-ranging concerns from residents including lead-based paint, retaliation from housing companies and overpriced rent.
Among the reasons we provide base housing for service members is to help create community for their families, who are frequently uprooted and are left behind during overseas deployments. Military commanders had an incentive to see that the housing was safe and livable, even if it wasn’t plush. But in 1996, the military started outsourcing military housing to real estate development and property managers, who don’t have that same incentive.
The IG’s report comes three months after Mr. Novelly reported on wide-ranging housing problems at all the major military installations in South Carolina and suggests — we hope — that at least the Army is ready to address the problem.
But the underlying problem is not confined to the Army, or the military, or the federal government. It’s a problem that’s experienced by governments at every level when they contract out work: They don’t always provide sufficient oversight.
The result is massive cost overruns, delays and construction flaws like those at the Savannah River Site’s now-canceled MOX plant. It’s patients abused at the privately run group homes that the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs can’t seem to keep in line. It’s charter schools that fail students but manage to remain on the government dole by using loopholes the Legislature refuses to close. It’s trash that doesn’t get picked up on schedule.
Outsourcing government work is often smart and occasionally essential. It would be a managerial nightmare for the S.C. Transportation Department to hire enough government employees in the right places to complete all the road construction and repair work the state farms out to construction companies, for instance. It would be wasteful for the Charleston County School District to hire an architect to design the occasional new school the district builds. And some services are so specialized that cities and states don’t have the option of hiring the people who provide them.
But there’s also a downside. The first “Lessons Learned” report that Patrick Maley wrote after he was named South Carolina’s first inspector general in 2012 warned of the dangers involved in contract monitoring. In a 2015 memo sharing his observations from three years of investigating allegations of waste, fraud and abuse at state agencies, he wrote that outsourcing “seems to be viewed as automatically preferential to adding State employees,” when in fact the state is at “high risk” because of the difficulty of managing the contracts.
“Agencies have a tendency to view their job as essentially complete upon approving a contract/grant,” he wrote, “when in fact outsourcing requires heightened skills in contract/grant monitoring and engaged risk-based oversight to ensure value received by the State.”
When government agencies outsource work, it’s essential that the contracts enable the agencies to demand standards are met and to amend or even cancel contracts when that doesn’t happen. A good example of the sort of things that probably should be avoided is awarding 50-year contracts to provide military housing — or to provide most services.
And once the contract is signed, the agencies have to provide oversight, and then impose meaningful sanctions when the contractors don’t measure up.