POLITICS

Taxpayers spend billions on empty federal buildings while government idles

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michal Conger

Thousands of federal buildings sit empty across the country, costing taxpayers $1.6 billion every year in maintenance, but the government agency that oversees them doesn’t even have a timeline for putting the buildings to good use.

An arduous process tangled with bureaucratic rules slows the sale and transfer of unused buildings, according to David Wise, physical infrastructure director for the Government Accountability Office.

He told the House Subcommittee on Government Operations that various agencies have different rules for unused property, and without a time frame to force expediency, the process routinely takes years.

The federal government owns or leases about 400,000 buildings, almost 100,000 of which are vacant or underused. One of those is a warehouse in D.C.’s Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, where the subcommittee held this morning’s hearing as an example of mismanagement. The 32,000 square foot warehouse costs $70,000 every year in upkeep and has been unused since 2009.

“I think everyone in this room can agree that this is an egregious example of taxpayer waste that must be rectified,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.

GSA’s first step in disposing of empty buildings is an unhurried process of farming them out to government agencies before accepting proposals from the public. In the case of the warehouse, GSA has spent years evaluating possible uses. After spending $400,000 to determine it was unsuitable for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Affairs, GSA told the committee is has “begun” the process of selling it.

Meanwhile, neighborhood residents have come forward with several proposals for the space, including a restaurant, culinary school and market plan called Half Street Market. But the proposal hasn’t gotten very far because GSA hasn’t even listed the building as excess property.

GSA’s lack of transparency, its “inside game” of giving priority to other agencies before the public, and its lack of a fixed timeline for disposal are all serious problems with its management, said Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate for Washington, D.C.

Another long-standing issue that leaves buildings sitting empty is that agencies are supposed to keep an inventory of each building’s condition and use, but those inventories are rife with inconsistency. A 2012 GAO study found the federal real property profile didn’t match up with the actual condition of buildings at 23 of 26 sites GAO visited.

Those problems were the focus of a February hearing by the subcommittee.

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