Magazine article Computers in Libraries

E-Rate: It's Not Paranoia If They're Really out to Get You. (the View from the Top Left Corner)

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

E-Rate: It's Not Paranoia If They're Really out to Get You. (the View from the Top Left Corner)

Article excerpt

We've applied for E-rate funding for 5 years now. Things certainly have improved on the technical side. The debacle of crashing servers and "page not found" errors of Year 1 has been replaced by an online process that is mostly stable. You can even "sign" your verification form online these days. That's good. It's easier.

However, all is not well at the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD). While filling out 471 forms this January, I noticed an unusual amount of verification activity by SLD. It would ask for past bills to prove we were asking for the right amount. It got to the point where I wondered if we were under some sort of undeclared audit, so I went out on a couple of discussion lists and solicited input. Was it just us?

What I received back were dozens of letters telling of E-rate horror stories. You are not going to believe some of this. I must make these stories anonymous, by request, because those folks out there doing this are genuinely frightened that holding up their hands in protest will earn them even more scrutiny by SLD. They are frightened for themselves and for their institutions. This aura of fear kind of amazes me, but it is there. I'm even cutting the names off the letters I have so that even I don't know where they came from. They remain on file, anonymously.

Now, before we get too deep into this I have to say that I approve of an auditing process to ensure that E-rate funds are distributed in an equitable manner and that everyone follows all the rules. When the people at SLD read this, the first thing they're going to say is, "We have a duty to the American taxpayer to make sure everyone is following the rules, and therefore we have an audit process, blah, blah ..." I know all that. You know all that. America absolutely must protect itself against nefarious and underhanded public libraries and school districts that are out to defraud the American public. That's not right and by God, we had better put a stop to it! I just want this process to be accomplished with some intelligence, because the stories I hear show an amazing ineptitude. Personally, I feel as if I'm communicating with a slightly stupid robot that doesn't quite understand what I am saying.

Our 'Unofficial Audit'

It all started when said robot sent me a vaguely threatening form letter asking for verification of our "Telecirc" bills. Telecirc is our own slightly stupid robot that calls people and tells them their hold books are available. There are several hundred long distance calls every month, so the cost is in the hundreds of dollars. The folks at SLD apparently noticed this was a pretty expensive line, so they wanted to know what this was. I told them, and then I was asked for a bill. I faxed off a summary of a typical bill and they said that it did not justify the amount I was asking for.

"Hmmm," says I. Let's see if I've got this straight. SLD is asking me to use a past bill to justify potential expenditures in Year 5 that haven't happened yet. Sometimes Telecirc makes 7,000 calls per month, sometimes 6,000. It varies. Indeed, it is especially rare for a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) bill to ever be the same from one month to the next. So I sought verification. Did they want the whole bill? Did they want a year's worth of bills? I couldn't really tell, and they never really answered me. They always said, "Your prompt attention to this matter is appreciated." I informed my interrogator that each bill was 40 pages long. Did he really want all 480 pages from the last year faxed to him? Eventually I faxed over a whole month's worth. I haven't heard back on the issue.

Next, they picked another POTS line for me to verify. I sent a bill in. They said it couldn't justify my request. It was for $5 less per month than I was asking for, $60 per year on a request of over $3,000. So I sent them another month that showed $5 per month more than I requested. It all averages out, but there is no indication these guys understand that. …

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