The Washington Post

The federal government knows very little about some of the properties it owns, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

Researchers found that some federal buildings listed as in “excellent” condition had damaged ceilings, collapsed roofs, radiological contamination or severe roof damage caused by large fallen trees.

Other properties listed as occupied were found to be vacant or nearly vacant and sometimes in deplorable condition, according to the report, released Wednesday. An Agriculture Department building listed as in near-perfect condition and in full use was found to be vacant and with “multiple safety and health issues, including rat and beehive infestation.” It has been demolished.

The federal government is the country’s largest holder of real estate, with nearly 400,000 properties that it owns or leases, and President Obama views the properties as presenting opportunities for cutting costs. In 2010, Obama issued a memorandum requiring agencies to achieve $3 billion in real estate savings by the end of fiscal 2012.

GAO researchers found that despite warnings that property information and management were flawed, the government knows very little about the condition and use of properties it owns. The problems also persist despite efforts to create a central database that would facilitate the sale or lease of properties that the government does not need or use.

The General Services Administration acts as landlord or real estate broker for many federal agencies. In a statement on the agency’s blog Tuesday, the acting commissioner of GSA’s Public Building Services, Linda Chero, said the agency “has been working tirelessly with all federal landholding agencies to dispose of unneeded properties and since 2002 more than 3,355 federal properties have been taken off the government’s rolls.”

“But more still needs to be done,” Chero went on to say. “Our mission at GSA is to make government more efficient and save money, and as the federal government’s landlord, we will continue to do that by working with agencies to identify and dispose of buildings and facilities that are no longer needed.”

In compiling its report, the GAO visited 180 buildings listed as vacant or underused at 26 sites in Washington, Dallas, Los Angeles and Oak Ridge, Tenn. They found “inconsistent and inaccurate” data at 23 of the 26 locations, “raising concern that the database is not a useful tool for describing the nature, use and extent of excess and under-utilized federal real property.”

The properties are under the purview of five agencies: the GSA and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Veterans Affairs. Together those agencies control two-thirds of the building area reported by non-defense agencies, according to the GAO.

The GSA is still reeling from the scandal over a Las Vegas conference that led to the resignation of agency chief Martha Johnson. The agency also has come under fire from House Republicans for not acting more quickly to sell vacant and underused properties, and the House has held hearings on the Old Post Office, the Cotton Annex and the West Heating Plant.

In an e-mail statement, Chero said the GSA had contributed $317 million in savings toward the president’s goal. But the GAO report took issue with the GSA’s numbers, suggesting that the agency was projecting savings from future moves over a period that extended well beyond 2012.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who chairs a subcommittee on federal financial management, issued a statement saying the report “highlights some major challenges due to the lack of adequate data about the federal government’s property inventory.”

“It’s become clear to me, the administration, and to many of my colleagues in Congress that we can get better results and save taxpayers a significant amount of money if we improve our federal property management practices,” Carper said. “But until we address the absence of data, we won’t be able to realize our full potential in terms of solving this problem.”

The GAO recommended that the GSA and the Office of Management and Budget develop a national strategy for management of data and for dealing with excess and underused property.

OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an e-mail that Obama has made it a priority to end wasteful spending on federal real estate and sent a reform proposal to Congress “to cut through red tape and politics” more than a year ago.

“Because we can’t wait for Congress to act on the . . . proposal, we have been taking aggressive efforts to cut real estate costs — saving $5.6 billion since 2010 and we are on track to exceed the President’s directive to save $8 billion by the end of the year.”

She added that as part of its Campaign to Cut Waste, the administration recently set a policy requiring agencies to identify offsetting reductions when acquiring federal building space.

O’Connell is a reporter for Capital Business.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.

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