It took three years and a subpoena, but House Oversight panel members this week finally received an up-to-date White House inventory of underused or excess federal properties.
The result: A total tally of 7,000 unneeded properties worth $350 billion, a figure deemed “unacceptable” by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee. “The Congress and public will be astounded to learn of the unbelievable inventory of properties uncovered in documents provided to the committee after waiting nearly three years,” Mica said Tuesday before calling a hearing of administration officials and the Government Accountability Office. Nearly 1,500 of the wasteful properties are valued in the multi-million-dollar range, he said.
Mica singled out the Veterans Affairs Department, saying, “As Congress struggles to find medical resources for our veterans, the VA is sitting on 258 underutilized properties with a value of nearly $2 billion.”
Maintaining governmentwide excess properties costs $100 million a year, and of 3,293 properties declared excess (a separate category than underused), not even half of them are slated for disposal, he said.
Mica also highlighted his own efforts over the past three years to prod the Obama administration to sell off wasteful properties, mentioning the recent ground-breaking by the Donald Trump company for its coming luxury hotel in the leased historic Old Post Office on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Office of Management and Budget’s efforts at real property disposal were given a mixed review by David Wise, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Physical Infrastructure Team. Wise said OMB has not fully implemented past recommendations on standardizing data and definitions for such tasks as deferred maintenance and repair.
Defending the administration’s efforts was Michael Gelber, deputy commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service, who described the partnership between his agency, OMB and the inter-agency Federal Real Property Council. In fiscal 2013, Gelber said, GSA sold or transferred 213 facilities across the country, generating $97.7 million in sales. In fiscal 2014 so far, it has sold or transferred an additional 223 facilities nationwide, generating $29.3 million in sales.
David Mader, controller at OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management, said the administration has been active in “senior-level talks to take a more aggressive stance” on excess properties. “Budgets are not getting larger,” he said, “and we are committed to move forward in partnership with GSA” in implementing a National Real Property Strategy first called for by President Obama in 2010.
That strategy has three prongs, Mader said: freezing the footprint, measuring performance in achieving efficiencies, and reducing the inventory of unneeded federal properties. The key to implementation, he said, is to “streamline process requirements” to create new real estate management tools, and to “invest to reduce costs.” For example, the recent consolidation of GSA in its newly revamped headquarters saved money by allowing the government to cancel leases elsewhere, he said.
James Sullivan, director of the Office of Asset Enterprise Management at Veterans Affairs, said his agency is one of the largest landowners and is unusual in that it owns 87 percent of its portfolio. “VA has been a leader in capital asset management planning,” he said. “VA was one of the first agencies to develop a highly structured, data-driven methodology by which to assess proposed major constructions projects.”
Both he and Mader said they could do better if Congress passed the administration-proposed Civilian Property Realignment Act, which would provide more tools and flexibility to overcome local opposition to disposal of some federal properties. It would create an outside board to pick properties for sale, similar to the Pentagon’s Base Closure and Realignment Commission. (A similar House bill is still in committee.)
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., agreed with Mica on the need to accelerate sales. But he noted that local priorities and historic preservation claims complicate the process and that some of the resistance to “doing the rational thing” comes from Congress. “It’s a management problem, perhaps we need a pilot program,” Connolly said.
In the end Mica complimented the GSA for “finding creative ways” to unload excess properties under Administrator Dan Tangherlini. Much of Tuesday’s testimony, Mica said, “was music to my ears.”