Monday, August 15, 2011

Budget Wrangling at Home, 1919 Edition

It's easy to have romantic fantasies about living at a lighthouse--especially on a sunny summer day at a nicely air-conditioned maritime museum.

Here's the harsh reality, via excerpts from a 1919 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by the pennypinching J. Swagar Sherley (D-KY). The other players were first Commissioner of Lighthouses George R. Putnam, Commerce Secretary William C. Redfield and Congressman Frank W. Mondell (R-WY). Poverty Island (photo) was aptly named!

THE CHAIRMAN: The next item is "No. 5, light keepers' dwellings. For light keepers' dwellings and appurtenant structures, including sites therefor, within the limit of cost fixed by the act approved February 26,1907," $75,000.

MR. PUTNAM: The notes here give a list of 25 important light stations now lacking suitable quarters for the light keepers. The furnishing of a dwelling is looked upon as a part of the compensation for the keepers; that is, light keepers are employed with the understanding that they will be furnished with a dwelling if they will live at the station, and there is also a decided advantage to the Government in having the light keeper dwell right where his work is at the station, so he or his family will always be there.

THE CHAIRMAN: What are these people doing now'?

MR. PUTNAM: At most of the stations one or more of the keepers has to live somewhere outside of the reservation. At some of these stations, perhaps, if the keeper is unmarried, he is given a room in the dwelling of some other keeper. Such an arrangement only works satisfactorily if he has not a family. Congress has made appropriations of this character in the past—in 1907 and in 1908, the last one was in 1908—to supply deficiencies of this character in the same amount asked for here, $75,000.

THE CHAIRMAN: Do you think it is advisable to build now; when, as a minimum, it will cost you a third and in many cases a half or twice as much as it would normally?

MR. PUTNAM: Our attitude on that matter, Mr. Chairman, would be to see whether we could get buildings built at a reasonable cost. If we could not, we would postpone the work.

THE CHAIRMAN: You do not need to go into any experimentation in that regard. We know now the facts. We have sat here for months with nothing but that sort of testimony. We have already heard justifications from your department for deficits on the very basis of increased cost.

MR. PUTNAM: I would not be in favor of building these dwellings if we could not get reasonable bids on the construction—if we could not build them for reasonable amounts. We do not know when such costs are going to return to normal, possibly it might be a long time. The stations named here have all been picked out as particularly urgent and as cases where it is a hardship on the keepers.

THE CHAIRMAN: Give us the concrete facts in any particular case that justify building, irrespective of the tremendous increase in cost.

SECRETARY REDFIELD: You will observe, Mr. Chairman, that the limit is not to exceed $6,500, so we do not act irrespective of the limit of cost.

THE CHAIRMAN: I understand. You either do one of two things. You either do not build or you get very much less for your money than you could normally.

SECRETARY REDFIELD: We might build a simpler dwelling in some cases, perhaps. It is true and it should be borne in mind that there are certain kinds of construction where, if there is an increase in cost, it is not as great as it might appear. For instance, concrete construction.

THE CHAIRMAN: We have not found very much evidence of it at this table. We get an experience here that is pretty wide.

MR. PUTNAM: We have not asked for any increase in the limit of cost over what it was in the old laws, years ago.

THE CHAIRMAN: That may show just how much leeway you had rather than anything else. I should like to have a concrete case that represents a real hardship?

MR. PUTNAM: I can not give you the details.

MR. MONDEL: The need cannot possibly be the same in all cases. There must be some of these cases where there is more real need and emergency than others.

MR. PUTNAM: That is perfectly true. There are other cases where the keepers have not dwellings, which we have not even mentioned. These have been picked out from many. I shall be glad to put in the record some more details as to the urgency of some of these stations. I can not do so offhand.

THE CHAIRMAN: Very well.

Dry Tortugas, Fla.: There are three keepers with families in an eight-room house, which is very undesirable on account of crowded condition of the quarters.

Port Eads. La.: A dwelling is needed here for the keepers of South Pass Ranee Rear and Port Eads Depot, as the present quarters are entirely inadequate. There are five keepers for the depot and lights, with quarters but for three.

Port San Juan, P. R.: There are no dwellings for the keepers, and they should be provided, as it is very difficult for the keepers to obtain quarters near the lighthouse.

Poverty Island. Mich.: There are three keepers here in a dwelling which was built for one. In winter a laborer is employed who must also be housed in the dwelling. In summer time when their families are at the station they are housed in shacks. It is proposed to build quarters for two families.

Tawas, Mich.: There are three keepers at this station, with quarters but for one. The two assistants are living in improvised quarters constructed from former outbuildings. It is proposed to build a double dwelling for them.

Cove Point, Md.: There are two keepers at this station, with quarters but for one, wholly unsuited for housing two. An additional dwelling is urgent and an immediate necessity in order to take care of the assistant keeper, who is necessary to look after the compressed-air fog signal.

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