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Governments Unloading Property Online

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin isn't the only government official hawking goods online. With the economy continuing to tumble, more state and local governments are using the Web to clear out inventory and bolster deflated budgets.

Need a desk? How about an airplane? An armored personnel carrier? Items like these and others are now just a click away for the highest bidder.

New York state has brought in about $658,000 in online surplus sales through eBay during the 2008-09 fiscal year that will end March 31. The state is selling things like lab supplies, scrap metal and a lot of World War II steel helmets. Like most other states, New York also has traditional auctions at state sites for vehicles and equipment and had brought in $3.5 million by the end of October.

Among the more unusual items for sale:

  • A pair of size 7 high-heeled, knee-high "pleaser" boots confiscated in Ohio with bids starting at $15.
  • DuPage County, Ill., is auctioning a framed, autographed Sammy Sosa Cubs jersey for a minimum bid of $156.77.
  • The Spartanburg County, S.C., Sheriff's Office is peddling an old, framed picture of two camels for a minimum $55.
  • Beavercreek, Ohio, is selling a metallic colored "hobo" purse for $5.
  • The school board in Auburn, Ala., is selling two deep fryers with minimum bids of $515 and $321.

    In South Carolina, Charleston County officials sold their police airplane, old police cars and other types of equipment on www.GovDeals.com, paying a lower commission and reaching a wider customer base than traditional auctions offer. The site exclusively peddles government goods of all kinds, even airplanes, like the one Palin famously put on the auction site www.eBay.com. On the government auction block, consumers can find everything from armored personnel carriers to cranes, and smaller items from desks to printers.

    "We were looking for a more efficient way to sell surplus property, and the actual benefit is we're making an extraordinary amount of money doing it," said Scott Bartley, an accountant in the Charleston County comptroller's office.

    GovDeals uses software to validate buyer identities and contact information, and runs checks against its own database to ensure no one had problems with a buyer of the same, or similar name and address.

    GovDeals' parent company also owns www.GovLiquidation.com, which sells surplus and scrap metal from the U.S. Department of Defense. That site has a multiple-stage vetting and identification process before buyers are approved. Some buyers have to complete certificates describing the buyer's business and how they will use the item.

    GovDeals has added 12 full time employees - a 40 percent increase - in the past two quarters. Another Web site, www.bid4assets.com has seen a 30 percent increase in government auction listings this November compared to the same month last year.

    "We have seen a rise in it because they're struggling with the economy," said Jenny Lynch, a spokeswoman for bid4assets. "Obviously they need to reach a larger buying audience."

    Lynch said the company is preparing for a large influx of government sales in January, when many governments start drafting budgets for the next year.

    Terry McCorkle, owner of McCorkle sales in Claxton, Ga., buys heavy construction equipment, trucks and trailers online then resells them. He's bought nearly 90 different assets from GovDeals because it's easy and trustworthy.

    "You could look at it, and you had it described honestly, and most of the time they don't misrepresent it when it's a county and government entity," McCorkle said.

    The city of Tampa, Fla., has seen its auction revenues increase at least 30 percent in the past year, said Gregory Spearman, the city's purchasing director.

    Tampa expected to sell six jet engines online for about $20,000 total but got that much for each individual engine in an online auction, Spearman said. The city also sold a helicopter for $2.3 million, bought a new one for $1.9 million and pocketed the difference.

    Charleston County, S.C., used to sell at local auctions but only brought in a fraction of what it gets now.

    Selling the plane "saved us on hangar costs, and maintenance, a lot of other costs," Bartley said. "I don't know if we would have made that decision if we didn't have an easy and efficient way to sell it."

    Before going online, the county averaged about $250,000 annually in revenues from auction sales. Now that average is about $850,000 a year, Bartley said.

    Maryland's Department of General Services started a pilot program in February to sell items through GovDeals. Before that, the state had stored surplus in a warehouse and sold it through a local retailer.

    "Historically that operation has lost money, and we believe, through the online deal, by the end of this year we will have made a profit that we can put back into the general fund," said Mike Haifley, director of procurement for the agency.

    Between July and November this year - the only data available - state and local government surplus sales through online auctions fluctuated up and down 30 percent, but are currently about 25 percent higher than they were in July, according to an industry group.

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