GAO: Faulty system lists rat-infested federal buildings in excellent condition

Wednesday - 6/20/2012, 9:54pm EDT

The administration has set steep goals in slashing the number of excess federal properties and the costs associated with operating them.

But the main resource for tracking federal properties is plagued by inconsistent data-collection efforts and inaccuracies, according to a new Government Accountability Office review.

Among properties listed in "excellent condition" were buildings with collapsed ceilings, rat infestations and, even, radiological contamination.

Some agencies, once they identified buildings for disposal, stopped assigning repairs to them. However, even "severely blighted buildings" appear in the records as in near-perfect condition, GAO found.

"While it may be a good practice not to assign repair needs to dilapidated buildings that no longer support agencies in carrying out their mission, the fact that these buildings may report a perfect or near-perfect condition index provide decision makers with an inconsistent representation of the condition of buildings at a given site," the GAO report stated.

That lack of reliable data has left agency managers, "essentially working with one hand tied behind their backs," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement after the report was released.

GAO examined the real estate holdings of five agencies: the General Services Administration and the departments of Energy, Interior, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, which account for about 25 percent of the total square footage reported by federal agencies.

The Federal Real Property Council, which is chaired by the Office of Management and Budget, created the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP) to act as a repository for information about federal properties. The profile, which is maintained by GSA, contains information about whether the building is in use, what its condition is, how much it costs each year to operate and if the building is critical to an agency's mission.

However, in every category, GAO noted a lack of "sound data collection practices," that led to widespread inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

Utilization

For most buildings, the utilization rate is the ratio of occupancy to capacity. However, the council has not laid out clear, governmentwide definitions for either term.

For example, a VA office building was listed as 39 percent utilized in 2010 and 39 percent utilized in 2011, even though it has been fully occupied since 2008, GAO said. In contrast, a mostly vacant office building was listed as 59 percent utilized in 2011, even though a site visit by GAO found the true utilization at only 10 percent.

Assessing operating costs

At most of the sites GAO surveyed, the agency detected inconsistent procedures for reporting operating costs. Some agencies report large fluctuations in costs without much changes in building occupancy.

One USDA property's operating costs jumped from $374,000 in 2009 to more than $1 million in 2010, even as the occupancy, condition and value of the building remained unchanged.

Mission-critical?

In the FRPP, agencies list properties as being mission-critical; mission dependent, not critical; or not mission dependent. But they're given little guidance beyond that for assessing the centrality of a particular property to the agency's mission.

For example, GSA subjectively assigns buildings to certain categories.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which sits next to the White House and houses essential offices and staff, was listed as "mission dependent, not critical" in the property profile.

National strategy recommended

GAO lays part of the blame on OMB, which chairs the property council. OMB has recently asked agencies to provide more data and in tighter deadlines, which the agencies say could impact accuracy, GAO said.

GAO recommended OMB develop a national strategy for managing excess real property. The administration has proposed legislation, the Civilian Property Realignment Act, which would set up a commission tasked with shuttering under-used facilities, modeled on the process for closing military bases.

However, OMB Controller Danny Werfel, in comments attached to the report, said OMB is "concerned" the GAO report "underestimates the proposed legislation's potential to improve the management of real property."

Werfel also wrote that while OMB agrees with the report's general conclusions about challenges in managing federal real property, it does not necessarily believe GAO's work is able to be generalized across all of government.

GAO prepared the report at the behest of Carper, the chairman of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management.

"As the adage goes, 'You can't manage what you can't measure,' and that is certainly true when it comes to improving how agencies' property is managed," Carper said.

Carper, along with a bipartisan group of senators, introduced a bill in March to speed the process for disposing of federal real property. Unlike the administration proposal, Carper's bill would centralize real-property authority in a new Federal Real Property Council situated in OMB.

RELATED STORIES:

GSA pounded for not moving excess property faster

Senate bill aims to speed up elimination of excess federal properties

House approves 'civilian BRAC' bill

OMB sets up real property advisory committee