Councilman wants Pittsburgh to auction surplus items on Internet

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Public assets such as CPR training mannequins, a boxing ring, school buses, an Imperial metal revolver, a 75-foot aerial fire truck and an old police car are all things that can now be purchased in one consolidated online marketplace.

But Pittsburgh hasn't been participating in that marketplace and may not be getting as much money as it could from the sale of unused public property.

Councilman Dan Gilman estimates the city is losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue each year by using an "antiquated" auctioning system for surplus items.

Mr. Gilman said the city isn't appealing to a wide enough market because it follows traditional methods of auctioning off old assets. He suggested the city submit a request for proposals from businesses specializing in auctioning government assets online.

"During tough financial times, we need to look at ways to both cut costs and increase revenue, and this does both," he said.

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority has spent $897 to advertise the sale of old parking meters since October 2012. Most of the ads are in local and national parking magazines, including the International Parking Institute's monthly magazine "The Parking Professional" and the Pennsylvania Parking Association newsletter. It also has advertisements for old meters posted on its website.

So far, the authority has only managed to sell two batches of meters and has about 7,000 left in storage. One group of 200 meters went to the Lancaster Parking Authority at $50 per meter in 2013. The other group of 250 meters was sold several months ago to a Virginia-based municipal product refurbishment company, Booher & Associates, at $50 per meter and included some accessory parts in the deal.

"Twenty years from now, we don't want them sitting in the same spot," said David Onorato, executive director of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. "They're not of any value to us anymore and we're trying to get as much as we can out of them by selling them."

He said the authority has received several offers from scrap dealers, but the highest bidder offered only $11 per 100 pounds of meters.

The Pittsburgh Equipment Leasing Authority is already planning a mass auction of surplus equipment in June, including garbage trucks, street sweepers, ambulances, fire hoses, police vehicles, city plows, lawn mowers and salt spreaders. The auction has been held at least once a year for more than 30 years and is advertised in local newspapers, as well as on the City Channel and the city website. The authority also sends out auction notices to former bidders.

Guy Costa, chief operations officer for the city, said last year's auction brought in $118,000 from the sale of 99 units. Items sold include 41 police cars, five fire vehicles and 30 public works vehicles. He estimates at least 90 items will be included in this year's auction.

Auctioning assets online might be "something we can look at," he said, although the overall condition of many of the assets plays an important factor.

"Some municipalities turn over their vehicles sooner and sell them pretty quickly, but we hold on to equipment for as long as we can," Mr. Costa said. "By the time it gets to the auction, sometimes stuff is not fully operational."

Mr. Gilman said Pittsburgh is "way behind the times" of many other cities that auction items online. The city would have a wider choice of buyers and could devote less time to planning and consolidating items for an annual auction.

"If we [auctioned online], items would be selling year round," he said. "There would not have to be all this time and planning for a once- or twice-a-year event."

Popular auction website provides an online marketplace for government agencies to auction surplus items. The company has 6,547 government agencies advertising items on the website, 70 of which are in Pennsylvania.

Molly Nations, marketing supervisor for GovDeals, said the company collects a 7.5 percent commission from each purchase. The company, based in Montgomery, Ala., has almost 394,000 registered bidders in the United States and about 6,000 international bidders.

"You can get rid of everything as it is declared surplus, so you're not taking up a lot of space in a warehouse or fleet yard," Ms. Nations said of the benefits of online auctioning. "Also, you're open to the entire world. It drives up the value of your items when you have more people looking at them and bidding on them."

Agencies advertise everything from school supplies and hardware tools to public safety vehicles and confiscated property on the website. One vehicle, a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor with more than 100,000 miles out of Lexington County, S.C., had 17 bids reaching up to $1,752.

A U.S. Postal Service branch in Colorado advertised a lot of antique, brass-embellished post office box doors, while the University of Pittsburgh had more than a dozen interested buyers bidding on backlit pictures of Heinz Field and the Cathedral of Learning.

Mr. Gilman said he already has presented the idea to Mayor Bill Peduto, who has "expressed interest in it." He hopes establishing an online auction account is something the city can implement by the end of the year.

"We immediately expand the world of opportunities by increasing the amount of buyers," he said. "When you just sell it to the 25 people who show up at an auction in Pittsburgh versus the literally tens of thousands of people who visit these websites, you're selling the taxpayers short."

Clarece Polke:, 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.

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