POLITICS

Failures in managing federal property costing taxpayers billions

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michal Conger

Inefficiency, inaccuracy and underuse in managing federal property costs taxpayers at least $1.6 billion each year. That is the troubling conclusion of a report the House Subcommittee on Government Operations addressed today in its first-ever hearing.

Though real property management may seem “boring,” underused and inefficiently managed property is important because of how much money it wastes, said subcommittee chairman John Mica.

“Americans have a right to know how their money Washington has taken from them — how it is spent, and that it is well-spent,” Mica said at a hearing titled “Failures in Managing Federal Real Property: Billions in Losses.”

The issue has been listed high on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk series for 10 years now, despite several efforts to fix inefficient systems across the government. The issue is especially pressing with sequestration looming and the federal debt approaching $17 trillion, Mica said.

Several persistent problems have landed property management failures a spot on the GAO’s high-risk list for the past 10 years.

One is that agencies often report inaccurately on the condition, value or maintenance costs of their buildings. Dilapidated buildings are even reported as being in excellent condition in some cases, showing a wide gap between reporting and reality.

The Federal Real Property Council, created to help address mismanagement and underuse, “has not followed sound data collection practices,” according to GAO.  

Inaccurate reporting and inefficient planning result in excessive reliance on leasing, even when there are underused federal buildings in the same area. The federal government owns or leases about 400,000 buildings in the country, and this overlap costs agencies millions, according to GAO.

Another serious problem is that agencies don’t have a plan for properly managing underused property, said Mica. Old buildings are ignored because of maintenance or disposal costs, even though neglect costs taxpayers more down the road.

One property where this lack of a plan is especially evident is the Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service property in Beltsville, Md., a 7,000-acre property with more than 500 buildings. More than 200 of those buildings are vacant or underused — “sitting there idle,” as Mica described them. Forty of those are of a significant size.

But when he asked if there was a plan for those 200 buildings, he was told no, Mica said.

Not that the problem is limited to the Washington, D.C. area. Across the country, there are  77,000 buildings identified as vacant or underutilized. 

“We can go anywhere in the United States and see these abuses,” Mica said.

Today’s testimony focused on fixing reporting problems so the government knows what it owns and how best to use it.

The Government Services Administration oversees Federal Real Property Profile reporting on government buildings, but has not been able to enforce accurate reporting form other agencies, said Dorothy Robyn, commissioner for GSA’s Public Buildings Service. 

“We’re still at the stage of crawling, we’re not walking yet,” she told the subcommittee.

Eleanor Holmes-Norton, delegate for Washington, D.C., said the problem is not a lack of a solution, but that Congress keeps pursuing piecemeal answers instead of an umbrella solution.

“That’s not going to get us anywhere and you all know it,” she said. 

Mica agreed, saying he hopes the subcommittee will find more comprehensive answers to managing federal property.

“We need to not just talk about it,” he said. “We need to do something about it.”

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