What Bust? Bush Wants to Unload Some Real Estate

By Stephen Barr
Friday, February 8, 2008

Uncle Sam hopes to start selling off more of his unneeded real estate.

The president's fiscal 2009 budget would create a "real property disposal pilot" to expedite sales of deteriorating buildings and other property that is no longer needed.

The pilot project would move unneeded properties directly to sale and provide an incentive for agencies -- they would keep 20 percent of the net proceeds, with 80 percent going into the U.S. Treasury.

During the last four years, at the urging of the White House and the Government Accountability Office, federal agencies have been pulling together an inventory of what Uncle Sam owns and leases. A report last year identified more than 20,000 properties, some vacant, that federal agencies do not use but pay more than $130 million a year to maintain.

The budget proposal would permit agencies to try to get these properties, valued at more than $17 billion, "off of our books," said Daniel I. Werfel, acting controller at the Office of Management and Budget.

The government controls more than $374 billion worth of property worldwide, and many buildings are more than 50 years old and difficult to maintain. And obviously, many were never designed to accommodate computers and other technology.

It can take more than a year to sell surplus property because of laws and rules that require 13 different reviews. The reviews, for example, determine if buildings and warehouses should be demolished, offered to state and local governments or turned over to community groups that help the homeless.

President Bush's budget proposal asks Congress to allow the government to streamline the process, in hopes of getting some of the surplus property on the market in 30 to 90 days.

The pilot project would run for five years, selling property for cash at not less than fair market value, according to the proposal.

Under a 2004 presidential initiative, the government has already disposed of more than $7 billion in unneeded assets, Werfel said.

The idea has some support in Congress. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year approved a bill to create a similar pilot project that was sponsored by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.). In the House, Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) introduced a similar bill last year.

The End of 'Time'?

A regulatory relic may finally fade away.

The Office of Personnel Management has called for the elimination of the time-in-grade restriction, which dates to 1952. It requires that federal employees in General Schedule grades 5 and above serve 52 weeks in a grade before becoming eligible for promotion to the next grade.

The restriction was put in place by the late Mississippi congressman Jamie L. Whitten to prevent a big buildup of the civil service and excessive rapid promotions during the Korean War. Cutting red tape is never easy, however. The Clinton administration tried to get rid of the Whitten requirement in 1995 and 1996, and Bush administration officials targeted the restriction in 2003.

In a Federal Register notice Wednesday, the OPM said the time-in-grade restriction is no longer necessary because the government has developed standards for experience and education that employees must meet to get promoted. Employees also will be able to use experience from jobs other than their current position when competing for promotions.

The OPM gave agencies until April 7 to comment on a proposed rule to do away with the restriction.

"Elimination of the 52-week time-in-grade waiting period reinforces the principle that promotions are based on an individual's ability to perform the requirements of the position," the OPM said. Dropping the requirement also "will help dispel the myth" that federal employees benefit from automatic promotions because they spent a set amount of time in a grade.

Our Mistake

Yesterday's Federal Diary column, on background checks for federal employees and contractors, got a number wrong. The OPM said most investigations for top-secret and secret clearances are being completed in 119 days, on average. A typing error turned that into 199 days.

After rechecking data, the OPM said yesterday such reviews are taking 118 days.

Talk Shows

Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association, and Jessica Klement, the group's governmental affairs director, will be the guests on "FedTalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Tom Pyke, chief information officer at the Energy Department, will be the guest on the IBM "Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.

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