WASHINGTON – At a time when the rest of the country is tightening its belt, members of Congress are trying to encourage the federal government to get rid of some of its own ungainly bloat -- by offloading vacant, underused and dilapidated properties.
"We must take action to stem this tide of deterioration of federal buildings and subsequent waste of taxpayer dollars," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform (search).
In a hearing earlier this month, the Government Accounting Office (search) released a report indicating that billions of dollars could be saved each year by taking millions of square feet of property -- everything from old soldiers' homes to boarded-up post offices -- off the government rolls.
The government currently owns 3.2 billion square feet in nearly 525,000 buildings -- many of which are in disrepair, vacant and underused, and pose security and health risks to visitors and federal workers, according to the GAO report "Federal Real Property: Executive and Legislative Actions Needed to Address Long-Standing and Complex Problems."
The GAO contends that between the federal government's largest property owners: the Department of Veterans Affairs (search), Department of Defense, United States Postal Service and General Services Administration, "tens of billions" in taxpayer dollars are wasted each year on problem properties that need repair or restoration.
Davis said he is prepared to introduce legislation that would free up some of the bureaucratic obstacles for agencies to dispose of the properties and put the money back into their budgets. The bill would enable agencies to enter into public-private partnerships with non-government entities to use the facilities; or to lease and sell the properties outright, retaining the revenues.
"We just can't throw money at the problem," said Davis. "We must expand agencies' incentives to dispose of unneeded properties and extend their authority to enter into partnerships with the private sector."
The House Transportation Committee's subcommittee on public buildings and economic development, spearheaded by chairman Rep. John LaTourette, R-Ohio, is working on similar legislative action, aides say.
According to the GAO report and committee statistics, the State Department faces $736 million in repairs for its buildings, including more than half of its posts overseas. The Pentagon reports that it is spending between $3 billion and $4 billion per year maintaining facilities that are no longer needed.
The Department of Education is spending an estimated $70 million annually maintaining excess facilities. The Veterans Affairs Department estimates that it is spending close to $360 million -- or nearly $1 million per day -- on underused or vacant facilities.
"If we can limit, dispose of or lease out this property, that is more money that [we] would have for direct medical care," said Mark Catlett, a deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Catlett said that in the last five years, as patient intake has increased 75 percent, Veterans Affairs has embarked on a massive consolidation effort and a shift toward outpatient care from traditional inpatient service. That means a lot of old soldiers' homes, urban and rural hospitals and portions of working health care campuses -- about 5 percent of total properties -- are either underused or sitting vacant.
Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department already have the authority to enter into partnerships with private entities to renovate properties and either lease them out or share them. Currently, Veterans Affairs is engaged in three separate projects, totaling $80 million in new construction, which would bring to life old properties in Chicago through such mixed-use agreements.
GSA, which manages 8,000 buildings, more than half of which are older than 50 years, does not have authority to enter into such partnerships or dispose of facilities as it sees fit. According to the GAO, repairs on GSA's buildings would cost an estimated $5.7 billion.
House Government Reform Committee member Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., in whose Chicago district sits a vacant 2.5 million square foot post office that costs the government $2 million a year to maintain, said a strong bipartisan consensus supports congressional intervention.
"It's a tremendous waste to have to maintain [the property]," said Davis, who added that he supports any legislation that would take an active role in purging the government of problem properties or trying to find ways to resurrect them. He said he doesn't expect much opposition from either side of the aisle on this issue.
John McIlwain, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said reforming the laws is a great idea, but warns that future sale and lease agreements should be made with the best interest of the surrounding communities, and not just in pursuit of the biggest cash payoff.
"This could have a very big impact," he said. "I hope that the criteria they put out [for the sale and lease of federal property] will not only get the government the best return, but balance that with criteria that will get the best use of the property for the community in which it is located."