Federal Agency Spent More Than $10,000 on Smoking Hut for Employees - NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
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Federal Agency Spent More Than $10,000 on Smoking Hut for Employees

Project in Grand Prairie lights up questions about whether taxpayer money was wasted

For decades the federal government has encouraged people to quit smoking. So why would a government agency spend thousands to build a cozy smoking hut to provide shelter and a more comfortable place for workers to smoke? (Published Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017)

For decades the federal government has encouraged people to quit smoking. So why would a government agency spend thousands to build a cozy smoking hut to provide shelter and a more comfortable place for workers to smoke?

Behind the gates of the regional headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Grand Prairie sits a glass-enclosed hut built and designed for federal workers to take cover on their smoking breaks.

An agency insider told NBC 5 Investigates they are concerned taxpayer dollars were wasted to build the hut. That insider asked NBC to hide their identity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

"We're making it easier for people to take time out of the day and go smoke," said the insider.

The insider was surprised when workers started pouring a concrete slab and installing what looked like a fancy bus shelter only to find out it was a smoking hut.

"I believe it's a big waste of time, money, and really just encouraging people to go out and do a bad habit," the insider said.

NBC 5 Investigates filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the construction records. They show the Bureau of Prisons spent more than $9,000 to purchase the "pre-fab smoking shelter," including a $1,400 "upgrade for a gable roof." It was installed in 2016.

Receipts show more money was spent on the installation, bringing the total price tag to more than $10,000 – not a huge amount of money in a $3 trillion federal budget.

Still, Steve Ellis, with the non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, says that doesn't make it right.

"It certainly should raise eyebrows, because why are we spending money to actually accommodate smoking – something we know has huge costs for taxpayers in the long run," said Ellis.

In 2013, the Office of Personnel Management estimated smoking already costs the federal government "…an excess of $1.24 billion annually…" in higher medical costs for government workers and missed days of work.

That's why the General Services Administration, the federal agency that manages many other federal buildings, banned construction of smoking shelters more than two decades ago.

The GSA told NBC 5 they have "…not built any new smoking shelter, huts, etc., since 1993…"

"For twenty years we've told agencies they shouldn't be spending money to accommodate smoking, so to see thousands of taxpayer dollars going to build this structure really kind of flies in the face off common sense," said Ellis.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons says the agency was required to build the shelter in Grand Prairie. He says 16 years ago, a federal panel that resolves labor disputes ordered the bureau to provide protected smoking areas for workers.

NBC 5 Investigates reviewed the 2001 labor decision. It required the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide smoking shelters for employees at prisons. The bureau believes that the ruling also applies to office buildings like the one in Grand Prairie. The agency declined an NBC 5 Investigates request for an interview.

But the agency insider who spoke to NBC 5 feels it's a shame to see money spent this way when it could pay for things like equipment to better protect prison guards who work on the front lines.

"And that's money that could be going towards improvements on some of our facilities. It's endless what that money could towards, just for safety and protecting the public and the officers," said the insider.

NBC 5 Investigates wanted to know how many smoking shelters the Bureau of Prisons has built nationwide, but the agency did not answer that question.

We also reached out to U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who represents the area where that smoking hut is located in Grand Prairie to ask for his thoughts on the project, but Veasey's staff did not respond.

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