The federal government is the nation’s largest property owner. It holds over 900,000 buildings and structures totaling three billion square feet.
In 2010, the federal government spent more than 1.5 billion dollars to maintain approximately 77,000 underutilized and vacant properties. Another 14,000 properties are no longer used by the federal government and could be transferred to new owners.
With large federal deficits it is easy to see the sale of these vacant properties as an opportunity to save money. The government can reduce maintenance costs as well as recover funds through the sale of these properties to the private sector. According to a Republican report, $1 billion could be saved just by reducing vacant courthouse space.
Back in 2011, President Obama targeted the issue of underutilized and vacant federal properties as part of his budget. This quote from President which appeared in an article in the Washington Post:
"Now, some of the savings will come through less waste and more efficiency," he said. "To take just one example, by getting rid of 14,000 office buildings, lots and government-owned properties we no longer need, we can save taxpayers billions of dollars."
However, three years later little progress has been made in addressing the issue. This despite the President’s executive action and legislation to try kick-start the process.
Red Tape- The Biggest Impediment to Addressing the Issue
According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service Report, the single biggest impediment to efficient sale of these properties remains the federally mandated process. As an initial step. a federal agency that no longer needs a property must go through extensive reviews just to declare the property as "excess" and move it to the GSA for processing. Between 2010-2013 only 565 of the 11,600 underutilized properties transferred to the GSA.
One of those impediments is the extensive environmental reviews necessary to transfer properties. With very little incentive to spend the manpower to navigate the complex environmental statutes, many agencies simply don’t initiate the process to declare property as "excess."
If a property is declared "excess," it then moves to the GSA for final sale. However, before the GSA can sell the property, it must be offered first to other federal agencies, then to homeless providers and other public entities, including state and local governments. Only after all of these stakeholders evaluate taking the property and decline can it finally be offered for sale. This process can take up to three years for a single property.
I have been asked by Congressman John Mica (R-Fla) to participate in a roundtable discussion on underutilized and vacant federal properties on July 24th. Congressman Mica has assembled various experts to offer their opinions on how to streamline the process for selling such properties.
My comments will focus on leveraging the expertise of the private sector to evaluate environmental issues and mitigate their risks. The private sector can efficiently evaluate whether properties present environmental risks. If such risk are identified, multiple strategies exist that can be implemented to address or mitigate risks.
I look forward to participating in the roundtable. Addressing this issue presents a tremendous opportunity to save federal funds. It also presents an opportunity to place these properties back into productive use.