"It's not going to do us much good to uncover underutilized properties in Bismarck, North Dakota," said Joshua A. Muss, sitting in his office in the Old Executive Office Building. "We've got to find them in Los Angeles."
The executive director of the White House-level Property Review Board is talking real estate--federal real estate. His job is to fulfill one of President Reagan's most ambitious goals: the sale of $1 billion in federal land this fiscal year and $16 billion more over the next four.
But Muss' role is less that of the sweet-talking real estate agent and more that of the strong-armed bad guy. He spends most of his time pushing federal agencies to get rid of property they no longer need, a tough job in bureaucratic circles where one of the shapes of power is land.
Despite Muss' efforts, it's been slow going. Less than $5 million worth of land has been sold in the first three months of the fiscal year, and only three of the 357 "high-value" properties that the board had recommended for sale last summer have been sold, earning just $18,130 for the three.
"We haven't attained our goals," Muss said in an interview last month. "But we're working on it."
This is Muss' first government job after a career in law and real estate in New York, Illinois and Texas. He considers himself a successful businessman, one who believes that success includes a stint "in public service."
Muss, 49, said he never sought public office, but when the opportunity came along to head the Property Review Board he jumped at it. To this day, he said, he does not know which of his "administration friends" put his name forward.
Most of Muss' coaxing now is focused on the Defense, Interior and Agriculture departments and the General Services Administration. Muss said his staff is concentrating on the agencies' holdings in the 17 largest Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. (For DOD, it's the 26 largest SMSAs plus Tucson and the entire state of Hawaii).
"This is where we want to look, because if we find property that is unneeded it's going to earn us some money," he said.
Muss said some of the bureaucrats he deals with, such as those with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are "very efficiently organized and technically proficient in property management and disposal." Others, such as those with Interior's Bureau of Land Management, have sales procedures that have been in place for years but lack the "motivation" to sell land agressively, he said. Muss said BLM had to have someone come in from outside and "reorder their priorities for them."
Muss said the rest of his time is spent mapping legislative strategy (because several laws stand in the way of some goals of the sales effort) and responding to "scores of inquiries about different pieces of land."
"Already, every property is in a congressional district and has two senators representing it," Muss said. "I guess it's fortunate each property is not in two congressional districts." He paused. "Well, I guess some are."
Although Muss is a personable, articulate advocate, his critics say that his lack of government experience and his staff's inability to smooth political feathers have left a trail of turmoil and misunderstandings.
One top GSA official, who would like to see his agency take the lead role in the land sales program, said, "All I do is go after them putting out the fires."
"I wouldn't comment on that one at all," Muss said.