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Pinellas school auction offers bargain deals, but at what cost?

Tim Russell goes to lots of auctions to support his pawn business and lifelong hobby of buying and selling used goods.

So he was stunned two weeks ago to walk away from the Pinellas County School District auction with hundreds of digital cameras, video recorders, projectors, VCRs, camera cases and more.

All for less than $900.

"I would have paid much more if they would have let me," said Russell, owner of Big Tim's Pawn in Pinellas Park.

He has already made his investment back, and he estimates he'll bring in $25,000 to $30,000 by selling the equipment on eBay and in his store.

A school district official acknowledged Friday that the district may be selling itself short.

"It's sounding to me that, from what this gentleman is saying, that we may do a whole lot better if we try to sell these things in an Internet auction," said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of facilities and operations for the school district.

Not that Russell feels all that good about what happened.

Judging by what he saw at the April 28 auction at the district's Walter Pownall Service Center warehouse in Largo, he said, he's convinced the district is losing out on the potential to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars on its surplus equipment.

Consider:

• Russell spent $150 on a pallet stacked with more than 50 camcorders in hard storage cases. Just one of them, a professional grade Panasonic AJ D200, sells for between $600 to $800 used, not including the power supply, the lens and the Thermodyne International Ltd. case, which all came with it.

• He bought a pallet of LCD projectors for $110. One of them sold for $230 Thursday on eBay.

• After listing about 50 items online this week, he walked away with $1,000 profit on Thursday alone.

"For a guy who goes out and actually looks for deals all day long, what I saw there, it wasn't right," he said.

The annual auction, which has been organized for 20 years by Harrow's Auctions Inc. in Tampa, brought the district $206,906, records show. Russell believes the bottom line should have been double that.

Items sold in April include weight machines, boats, cars, industrial sewing machines, refrigerators, commercial ovens, welders, tools, lawn mowers and even a Yamaha Wave Runner.

A Hobart 60-quart mixer went for $1,700. Such used industrial mixers were listing for between $3,000 and $6,000 Friday on eBay. One Blodgett commercial oven sold for $100, with another going for as high as $1,500. Online, used Blodgett ovens were advertised for thousands. Nine Smartboards, which the district has put a premium on getting into classrooms, sold for $300 together.

Documents provided by the district did not indicate the condition of the items sold. But Russell said 90 percent of his purchases were in good, working condition, including some that had tags on them stating they were broken.

Bessette, who said he has never been to a school district auction, said the items that are put up for bids are things that schools say they no longer want. He said the equipment comes into the warehouse and is first offered to other schools. Unclaimed items are either tagged to be recycled or sold to clear space in the warehouse, he said.

Profits from the auction flow back into the district's $1.3 billion budget.

But in a down economy when district leaders say they're trying to cut millions of dollars in expenses in the name of improving efficiency and teacher pay, the thought of all this excess property going for a song prompted some concerns.

"It's troubling," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, who is in the midst of teacher contract negotiations. "It seems like bargain basement prices when there's the potential to make a lot more."

Bessette said the district has recently experimented with selling its excess property online — and with good results. The food services department pulled in $38,800 by selling equipment online, he said, whereas the department only made $14,000 at April's in-person auction.

"I think it does beg the question: Is there too much equipment out there?" Bessette said. "We have to get away from 'wants' and get totally to 'needs.' . . . But a lot of things that are out there have lived their useful life."

Russell said there was another thing that bugged him about the auction.

He said he didn't feel the auctioneer was doing everything possible to get the highest prices. Items grouped in lots that would have made sense to split in order to get more competitive bids were not split, he said. Bidding on some items ended quickly, when it would have been logical to wait for higher offers.

"Your duty is to get every single dollar out of everything," Russell said.

Andrew Harrow, who is listed with the state as vice president of Harrow's Auctions, told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that he wouldn't be ready to talk about his work for Pinellas until next week. Then he hung up on a reporter.

Harrow's earned $28,188 in commissions on the school district auction, records show.

Contacted by the Times, Greg Farner, owner of Bay Area Auction Services in Pinellas Park, said splitting lots can be a good strategy for the seller. "That's just a given that the auctioneer should be looking to make more money," he said.

Bessette said he'd be interested in hearing more from Russell.

"Maybe we ought to talk to this guy about selling this stuff for us," he quipped.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8707.

Pinellas school auction offers bargain deals, but at what cost? 05/11/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 11:36am]
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