For the administrator who has everything...


DES MOINES, Iowa -- Tom Roller is Iowa's official junk man.

As director of the Iowa Surplus Property Division, he buys up surplus equipment and supplies from the federal government and sells them -- cheap -- to local governments, schools and hospitals.


He made his most famous purpose last year when he brought to Iowa the gaudy guard uniforms from the Nixon White House that eventually were sold to the Meriden-Cleghorn High School band.

His division does not have anything quite as exciting this year, but the variety and supply of other items in Roller's warehouse seemingly is endless.

For instance, hospitals can latch on to a host of expensive generator sets, ranging from $300 to $2,250.

Or external grinding machines, lathes, radial arm saws, milling machines, cranes, motor graders.

And, of course, there's the ever-popular 'wide bite all purpose' bucket dragline. A paltry $50.


If heavy machinery isn't the need, the Surplus Property Division also can provide typewriters, basketball uniforms -- if your team happens to be nicknamed the Knights -- gas masks, metal doors, hammers, chisels, leather shoes, waterproof bags, potato peelers, parachutes or pneumatic hammers.

This year's special is floor tile. Roller insists the 12-inch by 12-inch self-adhesive vinyl slabs are a steal at $25 a carton.

'Business picks up after we release a good catalog,' Roller said. 'A number of things have moved already. We got rid of the basketball uniforms, three or four generators, some floor tile, and hand tools.'

Roller called hand tools 'traditionally popular items -- cities, counties, and schools can never get enough of them, it seems.'

'Office furniture also is a fast mover,' he said. 'We sell countless desks and file cabinets. You could go into town halls all over the state and find gray, metal federal government furniture.'

Although business currently is good and prices are low, Roller said inflation until recently hampered surplus sales.

'We saw it starting to slow down at the end of last summer,' Roller said. 'People were just afraid to commit any of their money. But as a long-term thing, people see more than ever that surplus made sense.'


In order to combat the slowdown, Roller came up with a 10 to 20 percent savings coupon, which he said has helped rope a few customers into the warehouse.

'I thought we'd try it to spur business,' he said of the coupon. 'Many people are taking advantage of it. It can be used on a single item or a total order.'

Roller noted Boone County recently purchased a $75,000 snow plow and used the 10 percent coupon to knock off $350 on a $3,500 service charge.

'I think they were quite pleased,' he said.

The Surplus Property Division receives no state appropriation and Roller said the operation survives through its service charges. The program began in 1945.

Roller maintains his division should not be viewed as a state-run junk operation. 'It's in the eye of the beholder,' he said.

His biggest coup as director of the division occurred a few years ago, he said, when the state mental health facility at Cherokee was looking for a large laundry machine.

'Their appropriation request was for $90,000,' Roller explained. 'We were able to find them a machine five years old in a Vets Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. These machines have about a 30-year life span, so it had 25 to go on it.


'With moving and reinstalling it and a service charge it was $10,000. So we saved the state as much as $80,000.'

Among other more notable purchases have been a $5 million sidewheel riverboat, purchased for $1,000 and towing costs for a riverboat museum in Dubuque, and 65 head of cattle from Nevada, picked up for Iowa State University for the service charge price of $400.

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