DEBBIE ABRAHAM, for The Columbian

If you go to a lot of meetings -- and I do -- you get to hear a wide variety of speakers delivering information on a mind-numbing array of topics. Some of these meetings can put you in a haze. For entertainment, I like to watch others try not to fall asleep, then jolt awake.

But often enough, you come across things that are truly informative. One such thing came up at a Neighborhood Associations Council of Clark County meeting last month. Organizers would like you to know about a gem of a program: Ground Equipment Maintenance. (Adds up to GEM -- too cute, huh?)

The front end of the moniker is Southwest Washington Interagency Cooperative. But SWIC doesn't quite reach cute.

The GEM program works kind of like this: Imagine your neighborhood had a lot of lawn work to do. You all needed (wanted) that expensive edger, a thatcher, a power washer, a lawn mower like they have at the golf courses.

Instead of each of your neighbors buying this expensive and barely used equipment, you pull together and share the equipment that each of you own. Maybe you even come together to jointly purchase new equipment. You could then come up with a cute acronym for your system, like GEM, and I would write a column about you.

Essentially, this is what public agencies in our region have done.

Recognizing that they face shrinking budgets against the rising cost of specialized equipment, local agencies started working together to share their resources and save every organization -- not to mention the taxpayers who fund them a ton of money.

Starting informally in 1993, GEM has grown to involve dozens of agencies who trade equipment and services, contract work jointly for better pricing and work together to save as much money as possible. GEM also provides a network for individuals who would not normally get together to share information and tips to save even more money.

Imagine the repair shop you would need for a fire truck or those huge snowplows. Then think about how many agencies we have here in Clark County that each need to have a repair shop. It certainly makes a ton of sense to have one that does all the work with all the specialized equipment rather than a dozen or so separate facilities.

C-Tran has painting equipment for their big buses and shares the facilities with other agencies with big vehicles needing paint. The cost to C-Tran? Minimal. The savings to other agencies? Maximal. Taxpayers save millions.

Another significant savings comes from the Northwest Regional Training Center. All sorts of government agencies need to conduct specialized health and safety training that is required by law. Instead of having the sheriff's office, the fire districts and scads of other agencies recreate the wheel with their own systems -- at huge expense -- one program does it all.

The Washington Department of Transportation, Clark Public Utilities, C-Tran, school and fire districts, Clark County cities, the Washington State Patrol and various other agencies all belong to the training program.

Black hole myths

Critics often create this notion that our tax dollars get sucked into a governmental black hole mismanaged by corrupt and inept bureaucrats -- as though we don't benefit from street lights that work, schools that do a fine job of educating our kids, roads that function remarkably well despite being hugely under funded and a justice system that generally keeps us safe, criminals at bay and court cases moving.

Most tax dollars are spent judiciously. Most maligned 'bureaucrats' do their best with restrained resources. I always challenge critics to tell me specifically which programs should be cut and which positions eliminated. Usually they grumble that everyone knows there is nothing but waste in government and imply I am naive (or stupid) to believe otherwise.

But when you come across a GEM like this one, you realize these bureaucrats are taxpayers like the rest of us and are looking to save their tax dollars, too.

Debbie Abraham lives with her family in Felida. She is a community activist and member of the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission. Her e-mail address is

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