President Reagan last week agreed to draw up new plans guiding the management of the government's real property holdings, apparently setting in motion a new push to sell off vast tracts of surplus federal property.
Part of the proposal, crafted under the auspices of the Cabinet Council on Management and Administration, can be put in place through an executive order or presidential memorandum, but some components will require legislation, administration sources said.
A copy of the Cabinet Council report, obtained by The Washington Post, says that at present "there is no assurance that the federal real property inventory is well utilized, and significant excess probably exists in the inventory." It also states that "taxpayers' interests . . . do not receive sufficient attention in decision making, and overall policy for real property management is lacking."
Bruce Selfon, a member of the council's staff, said it is "premature" to comment publicly on the proposal.
Ray A. Kline, who recently retired as administrator of the General Services Administration, put the plan together over the past five months as chairman of a special Cabinet Council Working Group on Real Property Management.
The study team found that, to a large extent, Congress, "through micromanagement, has actively frustrated needed changes in policy direction although this may stem from a perceived lack of overall administration policy direction." According to several sources who helped put the report together for Kline, the most controversial recommendations ask that agencies to agree to binding annual targets with the Office of Management and Budget for the disposal of unneeded land and giving the Defense Department virtual carte blanche to manage the sale of its own property and to retain the proceeds.
A source said that the latter proposal appears to runs counter to an earlier administation initiative that would have redirected the proceeds from property sales from an account used to buy new parkland into a fund to offset the national debt. In the fiscal 1983 budget, the administration proposed selling more than $17 billion worth of unneeded federal land, with about half of the revenues coming from the sale of open public lands -- managed by the Interior Department, the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers -- and the other half coming from the sale of lands managed by the rest of the federal agencies.
But the initiative ran into serious opposition from Congress and environmental groups after the administration proposed selling more than $17 billion worth of property.
After the issue smoldered for a year, Interior Secretary James G. Watt pulled his agency out of the sell-off program. Without an incentive to put property on the auction block, most other agencies also lost interest in turning over unneeded land to the General Services Administration for disposal.
Now, administration sources involved in compiling the report say that while the targets are being drawn up, the intent is not to "draw new attention to a land sales program. That is only one small part of this project.
Another controversial initiative would have allowed some agencies a shot at receiving the right from OMB to retain a portion of the sales proceeds from surplus property auctions as a "positive incentive" to put up more land. However, after OMB Deputy Director Joseph R. Wright Jr. called that idea "flatly unacceptable," it was stricken from the package presented to the President, administration sources said. In a January interview, Wright said "this is not their land. The federal government should use the money for the best purposes."
Other recommendations include:
An interagency committee of deputy secretaries, headed by the the GSA administrator, which would "force high-level agency and governmentwide attention to real property management."
A study to explore which methods of financing could be used to acquire property, including lease-backs, leases with options to buy, exchanges between federal agencies and time financing. Currently the government pays cash on the barrel. A requirement that agencies tell the Cabinet Council by June 30 whether they have a system of checks and balances in place to ensure that policies are being followed. Special steps by agencies to maintain recognized historic properties "to promote efficient government use and long-term preservation." Delegation from GSA to those agencies that can handle the responsibility well of the authority to lease, acquire and sell property (in limited instances) Making agencies -- and not GSA -- "accountable and responsible" for work-space reductions that will result in more federal employes working in less space. Also making agencies -- and not GSA -- responsible for conducting surveys to determine if real property is being fully utilized or if it should be sold. A study to determine if it is cost-effective for agencies to "buy" property from other agencies through congressional appropriations, as is now the policy.
The legislative changes included recommendation to repeal the 25-year-old system of sending "prospectuses" to Capitol Hill to approve major leases and repair projects and terminating a section of the Economy Act of 1932 that limits the amount of rent that can be paid for a leased facility to 15 percent of the appraised fair-market value of a property. The group also wants Congress to stop reviewing negotiated sales made for less than $1 million. Currently, all negotiated sales of $1,000 or more must be cleared by Congress. Over the past five years, 91 statements were sent to the Hill for property sales of more than $1,000. Only 21 of those sales were for more than $1 million.