Renton’s giant stash of hidden money | KUOW News and Information

Renton’s giant stash of hidden money

May 5, 2017

The Kent Valley keeps its surprises hidden away and out of sight. Nothing is more well-hidden than the Federal Reserve Bank’s giant vault of money, set far off an isolated corner in an industrial park in Renton.

This is where the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco holds 40 days’ worth of cash for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii. It’s a place surrounded by high fences and gates made of concrete pylons, where armored trucks sent by this far-flung region’s banks pick up and deliver cash.

It’s a high-security building. It is rarely seen by outsiders. Inside, cameras record people’s movements. Teams of workers take control over the job at hand in rooms with clear Plexiglas walls. In one room, a team counts money a bank has ordered. In another room, a team sorts incoming cash from banks that have too much in their vaults.

In another room, this one filled with the sound of grinding paper, workers and machines determine which tired, stained or old bills should be replaced with fresh ones from the vault. Unlucky bills are ground “into tiny, tiny pieces,” said Darlene Wilczynski, branch manager here. “You will not be able to puzzle-piece them back together in any way, shape or form.”

Then there is the vault itself – a tower holding stacks of clear Plexiglas blocks of cash.

Money moved by robot to its place in the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's Vault in Renton. The vault holds new as well as old bills, carefully sorted.
Credit KUOW Photo Carolyn Adolph

It’s a place where humans do not roam. Robots with long limbs run between the stacks fetching boxes down or lifting them up.

“I can’t tell you how much is in here,” Wilczynski said. “But what I can tell you is in order to ensure if something should happen and we need to provide currency out in the market, we generally keep a 40-day supply.”

That’s 40 days worth of money for banks in communities struck by natural disaster. Western Washington is famously capable of earthquakes more severe than in California, which has its own cash supply vault. And in disaster scenarios where electronic funds may be hard to use, cash is king.

Wilczynski says it’s important people know that cash will be there for them, no matter what – that the dollar they have in their hands will have a dollar’s value. It’s no ordinary piece of paper.  

“Our goal is to make sure that the public trusts the currency that they have in their hands. If people are to trust that the currency is going to have the value that it has, then they have to trust in the integrity of the work that we do here.”