Michael Iacianci works in the same building that houses the main Akron office of the Social Security Administration — the Federal Building, that hulking, five-story structure on the northern end of South Main Street.
One recent day, rather than take the regular passenger elevator to get to his office, Iacianci decided to hop on the cargo elevator.
He rode along with “a gentleman who was delivering two 60-inch Sharp, flat-screen, 3D TVs to the Social Security offices on the floor above mine.
“I spent the better part of my day trying to figure out why the Social Security office needs a TV, let alone two 60-inch, 3D TVs, and I could not come up with an answer that was justifiable.
“If this is how my tax dollars are being spent, then I would rather the TVs be delivered to my house and the houses of my neighbors and friends.
“I’m sure the local community could put the money spent on these TVs to better use than a bunch of government employees watching Avatar while my Social Security benefits disappear before I’m able to collect them.”
Heck, Michael, everyone needs a little entertainment in the workplace, right?
Iaciani’s observation certainly cried out for an explanation. So I contacted Robert Fenn, the fellow who writes a Social Security advice column every Monday for my favorite newspaper and, in his spare time, serves as the SSA’s local honcho for public affairs.
Fenn passed me along to a regional spokeswoman in Chicago, Carmen Moreno. She investigated the situation and told me things were not quite as bad as they looked.
First, some background.
The downtown Social Security office is not only a portal for the general public to conduct routine business — picking up a new Social Security card or applying for Medicare, for instance — but also houses the SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
“We fondly call them our ODAR offices, because we love our acronyms,” Moreno cracks.
ODAR is where folks wind up after they have been declared two-time losers: Their application for disability payments has been medically denied, as has their request for a “reconsideration.”
The next step, if they want to pursue it, is a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.
Most of the time, a local judge presides. But when the caseload grows too heavy, appeals sometimes are heard by faraway judges via teleconferences.
“What [Iacianci] actually saw was equipment being delivered to the Office of Disability and Adjudication Review,” Moreno says. “It was three boxes, one full of connector pieces and the other two screens we use for video conferencing. …
“Claimants provide testimony to a judge anywhere in the U.S., and it is [virtually] face to face.”
OK, but do you really need 60-inch, 3D TVs? What’s wrong with, say, 50-inch, two-dimensional TVs?
Moreno quickly agrees. She says these kinds of contracts are bid nationally, and in this situation the supplier was obligated to provide at least a 58-inch, flat-screen unit.
Yes, a 58-inch screen is a whopper by household standards, but “we’re dealing with people who are disabled, and people need to see the judge and hear clearly,” she says.
“The manufacturer holding the contract no longer makes a 58, but does make a 60. All they had available were the 3Ds, so they had to substitute [the fancier model].
“Whatever they substitute is not at additional cost to us.”
Well, that’s good to hear.
Moreno certainly understands why the delivery raised eyebrows.
“If I were in his shoes,” she says, referring to the Beacon Journal reader who thought he might be blowing the whistle on blatant government waste, “there would be an absolute concern.”
So how much are we taxpayers paying for these TVs?
Each screen comes in a “unit,” which includes the TV, a video camera, a central processing unit, fax equipment, cables, brackets, shipping and installation.
Price per unit: $27,000.
Akron total: $54,000.
And you thought 3D TVs were expensive?
However, as Moreno points out, the government is saving a ton of money in travel and office-space rental, expenses that routinely were incurred when judges were traveling from site to site.
If it makes you feel any better, the folks at Akron’s Social Security office aren’t breaking out the popcorn.
“By the time we mount the units and program them, we cannot watch Avatar,” Moreno says.
Maybe they need to find a kid to engineer a work-around.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.