Several key career bureaucrats in the General Services Administration contend that politicians are playing games with repair projects in federal office buildings--some that involve life-safety situations--in their attempts to keep budgets deficits down.

James G. Whitlock, GSA public buildings commissioner in the National Capital Region, said "only about $50 million a year is available to work with although we've identified $400 million worth of projects in this area alone.

"That means we will continue to have to postpone projects that the engineers say are critical," said Whitlock, indicating that one year's priorities often slide beyond the next year if they are not funded immediately. The director of the GSA repair division, Dale Gottschalk, said even the annual setting of priorities often proves futile.

"When we GSA make a decision, we don't stick with that decision from one year or from one administration to another," Gottschalk said. "From what I've seen around the country, there are certain buildings that need some work. We see that; we decide to spend the money, then we waffle with" the decision.

One of the key projects now being shuffled to a back burner is the renovation of the Interior Department's headquarters, a $9.14 million project originally that included fire safety improvements, life-safety-code upgrades and the repair of what GSA calls "extensive water leakage" in the basement that "may ultimately cause structural failure of walls."

A GSA document that includes fiscal 1985 budget projections being submitted to the Office of Management and Budget shows that the changing priorities will leave GSA with only a low-priority spending plan for $2.7 million at the Interior Building in distant fiscal 1985. Gottschalk says the work selected is fixing six cranky elevators, not life-safety or structural problems.

Overall, the 1985 plan calls for spending a record $330.85 million, including high-priority work renovating Blair House ($7 million); the Pension Building ($30 million); and the Auditors Building ($9.3 million).

According to Whitlock, a 1980 study of the Interior Building shows that $28 million is "required from an engineering standpoint." But when that figure was reviewed first, it was cut to $9.1 million, and it subsequently was cut to $3.8 million, Whitlock said.

But while Whitlock said the changes in the scope of the Interior Building project were made because of an emphasis on reducing the costs of some of the major repair projects, Gottschalk said they were made because OMB required that GSA refund the $125 million in jobs bill money that it got last March from Congress, and this was one of the projects that was trimmed.

As designed by Congress, the jobs bill was meant as a windfall; but OMB asked for a refund from GSA in fiscal 1984 dollars. Instead of paying back the full sum from the same account, GSA chose to pay back $50 million from an account that handles large repair projects such as the Interior Department work.

Gottschalk said that the roll-back meant that five major projects would have to be delayed, including repairs on the Naval Intelligence Command center at Suitland, Md., that were worth $9.1 million. Also on hold: fire-safety work in a high-rise San Francisco federal building, life-safety work at a Denver federal building, space alterations in a Post Office and Courthouse building in Pittsburgh and space alterations in a federal annex in Atlanta.

"It is the big jobs that are more important," Gottschalk said. "By having it delayed, you can have the impacts of inflation on the projects. It will end up with the taxpayer paying more to do the same job, and by the time the work starts, the building will be in worse condition."

Whitlock, who said he would "enjoy" having a share of the $125 million jobs bill money to attack more of the $400 million worth of identified repair problems, admits that there is a "realistic side to the issue."

"If that $125 million appropriation impacts on further deficits that are already at $200 billion, we've got to look at that in a different way," Whitlock said. The Senate, however, has disagreed with GSA and OMB politicians and reinstated the full amount that was to be trimmed. The bill is pending in the House.

"Even if we get the $125 million, it won't end the waffling. There are always new decisions to be made," Gottschalk said, adding that "every year PBS goes over to OMB and they shoot us down. The buildings are getting older; the problems are getting worse."

"There is money available for doing repairs in the National Capital Region," Bertrand G. Berube, an official in the GSA division responsible for overseeing regional office operations, said, disagreeing. "The SLUC standard-level-user-charge payments that federal agencies make for space is about $200 million more in Washington than we spend annually maintaining and renting the space , but because of the way the system works, we are not allowed to spend it."

Berube, who for years has been an outspoken critic of GSA management policies, had a crack at pressing for changes when he was head of the National Capital Region last year.

"I tried to get more, but I was turned down at the political GSA level--not at the OMB level," Berube said. "Congress has never denied us what we requested because they know what we need."

While Berube contends that the lack of resources is the problem, GSA Administrator Gerald P. Carmen repeatedly has said that it is not "how much you have, but how you use it." On another point, while Berube maintains that GSA should keep federal building standards at least equal to those in the private sector, Carmen has said that the problem is the plethora of rules and regulations that hamstring building management officials from using "good common-sense" in keeping their buildings in order.