The federal government knows very little about some of the properties it owns, according to a forthcoming report.
Researchers from the Government Accountability Office found some federal buildings that were listed as in “excellent” condition to have damaged ceilings, collapsed roofs, radiological contamination or large trees that had fallen through the roof.
Other propoerties listed as occupied were found to be vacant or nearly vacant and sometimes in deplorable condition, according to a draft report from the GAO. An Agriculture Department building listed as in near-perfect condition and fully used was found to be vacant and with “multiple safety and health issues, including rat and beehive infestation.” It has since been demolished.
The federal government is the country’s largest holder of real estate, with nearly 400,000 properties that it owns or leases, and President Obama views the properties as an opportunity for the government to cut costs. Obama issued a 2010 memorandum requiring agencies to achieve $3 billion in real estate savings by the end of fiscal year 2012.
But the GAO researchers found — despite previous warnings that property information and management was flawed — that the government knows very little about the condition and use of the properties it owns, despite efforts to create a central database of properties that would allow the government to sell or lease those that it does not need or use.
In compiling the report, the GAO visited 180 buildings listed as vacant or underusedat 26 sites in Washington, Dallas, Los Angeles and Oak Ridge, Tenn. They found “inconsistent and inaccurate” data at 23 of the 26 locations researchers visited, “raising concern that the database is not a useful tool for describing the nature, use and extent of excess and under-utilized federal real property.”
The properties are under the purview of five agencies, the General Services Administration and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Veterans Affairs. Together those agencies control two-thirds of the building square footage reported by non-defense agencies, according to the GAO.
The GSA, which acts as a real estate broker for many federal agencies, still reeling from a Las Vegas conference scandal that led to the resignation of chief Martha Johnson, has already come under fire from House Republicans for not acting more quickly to sell vacant and underused properties, going as far as to hold hearings at the Old Post Office, the Cotton Annex and the West Heating Plant.
Linda Chero, acting commissioner of GSA’s Public Building Service, issued a statement on the agency’s blog Tuesday saying the GSA “has been working tirelessly with all federal landholding agencies to dispose of unneeded properties and since 2002 more than 3,355 federal properties have been taken off the government’s rolls,” Chero wrote.
“But more still needs to be done. Our mission at GSA is to make government more efficient and save money, and as the federal government’s landlord, we will continue to do that by working with agencies to identify and dispose of buildings and facilities that are no longer needed.”
Chero said the GSA had contributed $317 million in savings so far toward the president’s goal. But the GAO report took issue with the GSA’s numbers, suggesting that the agency was projecting savings from future moves over a period well beyond 2012.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs a subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, issued a statement saying the report “highlights some major challenges due to the lack of adequate data about the federal government’s property inventory.”
“It’s become clear to me, the administration, and to many of my colleagues in Congress that we can get better results and save taxpayers a significant amount of money if we improve our federal property management practices,” Carper’s statement said. “But until we address the absence of data, we won’t be able to realize our full potential in terms of solving this problem.”
The GAO recommended that the GSA and the Office of Management and Budget develop a national strategy for management of data and excess and under-utilized property.
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