By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005
Senators locked in partisan battle over the federal judgeships have found one thing they do agree on: The judiciary needs rent relief.
A bipartisan group of 11 Senate Judiciary Committee members is urging the General Services Administration to reduce the $912 million yearly rent bill for courthouses around the country, which consumes more than a fifth of the judiciary's budget.
"We make this request with the strongest sense of urgency," the senators told GSA Administrator Stephen A. Perry in a May 13 letter. Despite tight quarters and the need for more secure buildings, spiraling rent costs have already forced the U.S. Judicial Conference to adopt a two-year moratorium on the construction of more courthouses, they said.
"If rent relief is not granted to the judiciary, more personnel cuts will be required in the near future, including the loss of another 4,000 jobs over the next four years," the letter said. It was signed by Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), along with five other Republicans and four Democrats.
The senators asked the GSA to reduce the judiciary's rent by nearly half a billion dollars a year.
GSA officials said they are trying to cut costs to the courts but do not foresee such savings.
"We are doing our own due diligence to make sure we are charging them the right rent," said F. Joseph Moravec, the GSA's commissioner of public buildings. The rent reduction the courts are seeking, he said, "would seriously reduce our building fund -- frankly, it would put us out of business."
Court administrators and their supporters in the Senate say the judiciary is paying more in rent than any other federal office or agency. The payments to the GSA have grown steadily from $133 million in fiscal 1986 and are projected to hit $1.2 billion in fiscal 2009.
Since 1972, when Congress created the Federal Buildings Fund, agencies that occupy buildings controlled by the GSA must pay rent. The GSA is required to use the funds to pay off construction costs and pay for leases, as well as for maintenance and operations.
"The reason that their rent has been increasing is they are leasing more space from us," Moravec said. The GSA leases 39 million square feet to the judiciary, space that has grown by about 1 million feet a year over the past decade, he said.
The GSA is working with the courts to find ways to cut costs, he said, "including reconsidering the entire program of developing new courthouses" as well as closing underused offices.
"The judiciary is forced to pay for buildings that have been fully amortized, not only once but several times," the Judiciary Committee members wrote in their letter to the GSA. They asked that Perry exempt the judiciary from rental payments above the amounts needed to cover maintenance and operations -- savings they estimated at $483 million the first year.
The GSA acknowledged that the real estate boom has swelled its rental income from the courts, citing an increase in market rental rates. The agency is required by law to charge market-rate rents.
The agency controls about 40 percent of federally owned offices. The military, Congress, the Supreme Court and a number of other federal agencies, including the Treasury, maintain their properties and do not pay rent to the GSA.