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Cook County inspector general finds decades-old supplies in forgotten warehouses

Thirty new office cubicles, still in the boxes they were delivered in back in 1995. Twenty-five boxes of Xerox ink cartridges and toner sitting in unopened boxes – now unusable and too old to return. Same with the pallet full of electronic phone equipment that should have been returned to the vendor — but never was.

Those items are among wasted and forgotten supplies — valued at more than $100,000 — that departments across Cook County government might have used had they not been sitting forgotten in a government warehouse, the county’s chief watchdog announced in a report released Monday.

Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s office took a flashlight to three county storage facilities, including the Rockwell warehouse on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where those decades-old boxed-up cubicles and other supplies were found unopened.

At the Hawthorne warehouse, 4545 W. Cermak, the IG’s office found boxes of new ceramic tile along with pallets of light fixtures and lightbulbs. And a look inside a storage area of the former Oak Forest Hospital turned up water-damaged and moldy boxes of medical records and an unopened box — with a delivery date of January 2001 — that contained a new office cabinet.

The IG looked at the three warehouses and interviewed staffers about the supply chain starting in Fall 2011. The investigation looked back two decades and found that with the exception of computers, very little was done to track supplies and equipment.

So there’s no way to measure the how much taxpayer-funded supplies went to waste — or went missing.

In fact, up until two years ago, county employees would quietly dump off equipment on the loading docks of county warehouses in the Chicago city limits — earning those staffers the nickname “flash dumpers.”

The practice ended in May 2010 when the Chicago Fire Department threatened to fine the county $10,000 daily for “creating a fire hazard and unsafe working conditions,” at Rockwell, the report said.

Blanchard’s office decided to take a closer look at county storage facilities after investigating other cases in which supplies and old equipment were walking way. In one case, a senior staffer allowed an acquaintance to remove several commercial ovens at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and sell them for scrap.

But Blanchard’s office determined that the old ovens could have been fixed and resold for up to $15,000.

In his report, Blanchard says that between 1994 and 2008, a county salvage unit collected just $227,092.96. In 2011, a revamped salvage unit collected $118,000 by selling scrap metal and equipment, Blanchard told the Chicago Sun-Times.

In the county health system, there was zero inventory of fixed assets, making it “impossible to determine how much property was missing, lost or stolen.”

A consultant agreed that the Cook County Health and Hospital System was suffering from “expense bleed” — a problem across the industry. While there wasn’t a local estimate on annual losses, one national health-care study pegged the losses at $7,000 to $8,000 per bed annually.

But Blanchard’s office praised the health system for a new system to track supplies and equipment. The county health system got organized, unloaded obsolete equipment and stopped renting two warehouses. In 2011, that saved taxpayers $290,312 in rent and $94,500 in utilities and taxes.

“On the operation side, this has been a priority and we will continue to make and implement the recommendations from the IGs office,” said health and hospital spokeswoman Marisa Kollias.

Blanchard recommends that each department should do a better job of tracking supplies and equipment by creating inventory forms and conducting inventory reviews annually, plus limited audits to verify those annual reports.

He also recommends a more streamlined system of recycling and otherwise getting rid of obsolete equipment.

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