Lawmakers question GSA’s capacity to handle stimulus projects

Public Buildings Service is receiving $5.5 billion for construction and environmentally friendly upgrades.

The $787 billion Recovery Act will place intense pressure on the acquisition workforce at the General Services Administration, an agency watchdog told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Tuesday.

In a typical year, GSA's Public Buildings Service receives $1.3 billion for its capital program. The economic stimulus package, however, gives PBS $5.5 billion to construct new facilities and make existing ones more energy efficient. Additional funds will flow through GSA as other agencies piggyback on its pre-negotiated contracts. Within 18 months, 75 percent of Recovery Act funding must be spent. All of it must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2011.

"As it struggles to meet these challenges, GSA is like a single-engine freight train that suddenly must carry four times its normal load with the addition of more freight cars," GSA Inspector General Brian Miller told the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. "The anticipated addition of even more cars to that train as agencies start turning over project funding to GSA will put even more strain on the GSA engine. If it hits a hill or bump, the engine may quickly fry and burn out."

Despite the influx in work, PBS is not planning a hiring spree. William Guerin, who runs GSA's Recovery Act Project Management Office, testified that the agency would primarily rely on shifting resources within its existing workforce, rehiring a dozen retirees and adding contractor support.

"Our strategy is to execute Recovery Act activities on an aggressive schedule using streamlined business process and innovative approaches to project execution," Guerin said.

Miller's office has seven full-time employees supervising stimulus funds and is in the process of rehiring 10 to 15 annuitants to supplement its workforce.

But Subcommittee Chairwoman Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said neither Guerin nor Miller have devoted adequate energy to bringing back retired employees, who, she noted, would not require as much training as a new hires. She asked Guerin to supply a personnel chart by Wednesday tracking all new staff dedicated to the Recovery Act. The chairwoman threatened to hold an oversight hearing every two weeks until she was satisfied with the agency's progress.

Lawmakers also were wary of GSA's contracting plans. "I am greatly concerned that GSA is turning to a bunch of hired hands to do the functions of government," said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. "That worries me tremendously."

GSA's portfolio of Recovery Act construction projects includes a $450 million effort to convert the former St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington into the Homeland Security Department's new headquarters; $116 million for a new courthouse in Austin, Texas; and $199 million for a new border crossing facility in Nogales, Ariz.

The energy efficiency projects include $117 million to upgrade an Internal Revenue Service facility in Andover, Mass., and $167 million to retrofit the multi-agency Byron Rogers Federal Building in Denver.