Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

Pouring tax dollars
down a (1") hole

HERE is one of those government-bought-a-hammer-for-$400 horror stories that will knock your zories off. Except this happened here in Hawaii and it makes a $400 hammer seem like a bargain.

This one involves a 1-inch hole that had to be drilled through a concrete block wall so that a cable could be fed through. In the end, that hole cost taxpayers $10,000.

Mike Leary is a self-described "demo man," the head of Island Demo Inc. He's one of those guys who has a job that people used to envy. His job is to demolish things. He's demolished more than half the stores at Ala Moana Center so people could put in new stores. He's demolished chunks of hospitals and schools. Anything needs tearing down, Mike's your man.

But the job isn't as glamorous as it used to be. You can't just knock down things anymore. To be a demo man today, you have to be part scientist, part safety engineer, part evacuation specialist and part hazardous waste expert.

Mike's been a demo man for 11 years and so he's used to the bureaucratic aspects of the job. But the $10,000 hole was too much even for him.

Mike first vented his frustration about the $10,000 hole in Building Industry magazine, the bible of the local industry. He recently recounted the whole thing to me.

It began when he sent one of his estimators to look at a government project. (Mike won't say where this project was because he still has to make a living in this town.)

What was needed was a 1-inch diameter hole through a concrete block wall so that a cable could be fed through. Mike thought the job might go for $200. Max. His estimator laughed, he said. When Mike went to the first meeting about the project, he found out why.

HE was amazed to find 12 people at the meeting. Why? Because the project involved a small amount of asbestos and lead paint, he said.

According to Mike's magazine piece, there were three engineers, a project manager, two quality assurance inspectors, one safety officer, an Environmental Protection Agency compliance manager, two industrial hygienists and two administrative contracting officers. He was questioned about everything from a health and safety plan; a decontamination shower; where the waste from the 1-inch hole would be shipped; and whether he had a respiratory protection program, fire escape plan and air monitoring plan.

The most outrageous aspect of the project was that none of these precautions were mandated by federal law. They were put in the contract, Mike said, because the administrators "didn't want to take any chances."

"I left the meeting thinking, wow! A $200 hole in the wall escalated to $10,000 for the sake of regulation. So that's where a chunk of my hard-earned tax dollars is being thrown away," he wrote.

It didn't even matter that the money was going to his company.

"It's nice that we get some of it, but that's not the point," Mike told me. "How much more craziness is there going to be?"

Island Demo got the contract. It took him an entire day to "encapsulate the area" to create a "negative air" space so that no lead or asbestos would escape. How long did it take to drill the hole?

"Fifteen minutes," he said.

That breaks down to more than $600 in taxes a minute for actual work. Or 25 $400 hammers.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to or

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