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Pieces of Eight


ECU administrative assistant Anne Marie Gore examines a poster held together with binder clips while she waits for glue. She advertised for glue using the informal barter system that arose in response to budget woes. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)


ECU Budget Woes Lead to Impromptu Trade and Barter

By Doug Boyd

You know you smiled, maybe even laughed a little when you saw the e-mail subject line.

“Looking for Scotch Tape.”

Yes, state budget woes had reached such a point by June that a department at East Carolina University had to ask around for tape.

Did Susan Howard, administrative support associate in the Department of English, feel funny sending out a call for tape?

“A little bit, but we were out and the office still has to run,” she said.

In mid-April, the Office of State Budget and Management froze almost all spending, including that for supplies.

Purchase orders were canceled. Offices that were out of hanging file folders, binders and other mundane supplies started scrambling.

“We were told we couldn’t spend any more money, and we needed printer cartridges,” said Ellen Deters, director of the student services center in the College of Human Ecology. Actually, she had cartridges for Epson printers, but needed some for Hewlett-Packard printers, so she offered a trade.

After sending out an announcement of her needs, she found some cartridges courtesy of Merry Smith, an administrative support associate at the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU.

Smith said when she surpluses printers that no longer work, she hangs on to the cartridges just in case.

“Either I know where it is, I’ve got it or I know what floor it’s on,” Smith said of her supply prowess, adding she enjoys helping others who need supplies.

“After six months, if you’ve got supplies in your cabinet, you ought to send it out,” she said.

Attitudes like that please university officials who have been scrambling to help offices and departments fill their needs when they have no money.

“The budget crunch has forced all of us to look for ways to be more conservative and recycle,” said Nellie Taylor, director of materials management.

“People on campus have become very creative.”

Taylor estimated the surplus property office, which she oversees, has seen about a 20 percent increase in traffic from staff and faculty looking for supplies,

furniture and equipment. This summer, the office started a “good stuff” listing on its Web site of items in good condition, as an alternative to departments buying new. In late July, filing cabinets, desks and chairs were available.

When the announcements began hitting e-mail inboxes in the spring, Taylor was a little surprised at the needs people had.

“I did find it a little bit difficult to believe there were departments that didn’t even have the basics of office supplies to operate,” Taylor said. “I was surprised at the amount of bartering that was going on. I was also pleased.”

Though restrictions have eased slightly in recent weeks, ECU’s belt is still tight and shows no sign of significant loosening anytime soon, according to budget guidelines issued in June by Kevin Seitz, ECU vice chancellor for administration and finance.

With or without the restrictions, the active trading network has shown ECU employees can fill supply needs quickly and efficiently.

“I think we can look at what’s been done in the budget crunch and improve our practices,” Taylor said. “It would be very good practice to continue as a way to circulate supplies you no longer have a use for.”

Deters agreed. “I think it’s wonderful. It’s giving all of us a chance to use our resources, clean out our closets and keep operating. It’s a better use of state dollars,” she said.

Meanwhile, Howard has plenty of tape to hold the English department together for a few more months.

“Tough times hit everybody,” she said. “The response people have been doing to help each department and the university has been really amazing.”


This page originally appeared in the July 31, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at