County asks: Where's our stuff?

When Orange County comptrollers took on their annual inventory duties two years ago, they did not expect to face any more (or less) drudgery and absurdity than they face every year.

Orange County owns more than 32,000 items worth at least $500 -- the threshold for being worth counting. Each one has a tag with a number on it. Count it, record it. Fast and fun, right?

;;Not quite.

As of mid-February, close to $6 million worth of stuff was still missing or unaccounted for -- some dating to the 1996 inventory. Comptrollers and a few lucky workers in each county department are trying to bring the records up to date. Many things may be found yet. Some will be accounted for in other ways -- traded-in, scrapped, some of them so old and useless that, let's face it, who cares? And some things, like the 19 laptop computers assigned to the Corrections Department in 1995, were stolen.

The perpetrators -- a couple of cleaning-crew employees -- were prosecuted. Justice has been done.

But one curious thing about the Orange County inventory is this: Among all the things missing, lost, forgotten, stolen or otherwise AWOL, so far, not one thing has been stolen by an actual county employee.

Mark Fostier is the assistant comptroller with the unenviable task of counting all these things. He is a tough taskmaster. Several months ago, he let it be known that fire department officials were lax in their counting. The fire department complained that Fostier's agents had been hasty in their duties, at one point arriving at a fire station and marking absent both a pumper and an engine truck.

Both vehicles were at a fire.

In fact the count is more difficult than it first appears. For example, the county bought work stations for about $480 to $540, depending on how many were ordered. Those bought for $500 or more are tagged, those discounted are not. Years later, when some of the tags are lost, it becomes very difficult (not to say useless) to distinguish the previously tagged work stations (which must be counted) from those that were not.

Or, consider the lowly IRMA board. Tom Babington, director of information technologies, has to.

An IRMA board plugs into the inside of a computer and turns it into a "dumb terminal," suitable for hooking to a mainframe. Five years ago, these foot-long circuit boards were the thing to have, and Orange County bought lots of them for about $700 each.

Being inside the computer, an IRMA board is hard to count. Being covered in circuits, says Babington, "the idea of gluing a metal tag on it is very dicey."

If you were going to steal something for your home computer, an IRMA board wouldn't be it. Useless without a mainframe, it's decidedly not Plug-n-Play.

But while many of the hard-to-account-for items are like IRMA boards, others are much more amenable to consumer use. Babington has been trying to find a 140-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. He thinks the machine was assigned to his domain by mistake.

"I went to the staff and said, ‘Fess up,'" Babington laughs. "They said, ‘It's part of our mobile information technology commitment.'"

The public works department's division of development engineering was missing four $2,587 Dell Pentium computers with $747 17-inch monitors. Senior Engineer Julie Naditz accounts for only two computers -- and no monitors.

Fostier has classified missing items in several ways and is working on confirming the reports from folks like Naditz. His first order of business is the fire department, which last fall was short 1,320 items worth $3.9 million.

That list has since been reduced to 552 items valued at $1.1 million, because things like the trucks that were at the fires have been found. But those last 552 items become harder to account for. Fostier says 212 of them, worth $553,000, are considered "accounted for" because the fire department showed some evidence that they were either transferred to another department, returned to the property warehouse, traded or "located."

Fostier says he has a good idea what happened to most of the rest, but is awaiting more paper work. For example, 124 air packs worth $138,000 were traded back to the vendor for replacements, but the fire department doesn't have the receipts.

Still, some $200,000 worth of stuff -- 136 items -- were either stolen, "disposed of" or are simply missing, according to the fire department.

Only five things worth a mere $4,379.95 were "stolen," according to official records -- two chain saws, one lawn mower and two portable electric generators. The comptroller's office is awaiting police reports on these.

But the $86,000 worth of items that were "disposed" by the fire department include two exercise machines and a Canon copier of recent vintage.

"To me, that's missing," says Fostier, who adds that "missing" is also an insufficient explanation. "They may have to later certify at the appropriate level that they're stolen," he says.

The fire department is working with Fostier to clear up the matter, says department spokeswoman Tammy Wunderley: "We're supposed to be wrapping up in the next week."

Meanwhile, the department's "missing" category includes 94 items worth $110,000. Among these: nine cell phones, two fax machines, an $1,800 camcorder, a television, two laptop computers and, ahem, three $1,200-plus ice-makers.

There's also a Hotpoint refrigerator ($799) "certified missing."

All of which raises the possibility that somebody with a connection to the Orange County fire department is keeping cool with some hot stuff.

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