Historic buildings throw wrench in agencies real-property efforts

Friday - 1/11/2013, 6:31pm EST

Managing the government's 400,000-strong portfolio of federal properties has vexed agencies for years.

And the long-documented problems are only compounded when the properties in question are historical landmarks.

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office found tighter budgets in recent years have constrained agencies' ability to maintain and repair historic buildings and that poor data practices have led to inconsistent and erroneous information on a database designed to track federal properties.

And the problem isn't likely to go away.

"As federal buildings continue to age and become eligible for historic designation, agencies will increasingly face decisions about balancing preservation with the best use, which may include leasing or selling these assets," GAO auditors wrote in a letter accompanying the report addressed to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate subcommittee tasked with handling federal real property.

GAO's report focused on three agencies: the General Services Administration, the National Park Service and the Veterans Affairs Department. All three host a significant number of historic buildings, including office buildings, parks, courthouses and hospitals, according to GAO.

Budget constraints

Budget shortfalls in recent year have made managing historic properties challenging, GAO found.

GAO auditors could not determine the agencies' total spending slated for historic preservation because it often involves multiple budget accounts.

Overall, GSA has identified $4.6 billion in needed projects for the federal buildings that it owns and operates. While that includes both historic and nonhistoric buildings, GSA officials told GAO the former take up a lion's share of the maintenance and repair work.

However, over the past few years, Congress has allotted less funding to GSA's Public Building Fund, and the repairs and alteration account has been the hardest hit, GAO said.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service, which has reported that less than 60 percent of its historic buildings are in good condition, is beset by staffing reductions and delayed maintenance projects.

Database inconsistencies

Ostensibly, the Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP), a database containing information on the federal government's real-property holdings, should help agencies better manage their historic properties.

But GAO found the system plagued by inconsistencies. More than 75 percent of the buildings GSA provided data for and more than 63 percent of the buildings NPS provided data for did not denote whether the building was historic.

Auditors found that the West Wing of the White House, which is held by GSA and has been marked as a national historic landmark since 1960, is listed in the FRPP as "not evaluated."

Part of the disconnect stems from the fact that the property database doesn't provide more specific classification for buildings that are "contributing" historic buildings, such as smaller structures on a larger property deemed historic.

In 2009, the Interior Department recommended the Federal Real Property Council adopt more specific classifications, but the council never did so.

"The FRPP database's lack of completeness and consistency for historic data are not consistent with sound data collection practices," the report stated. "We have long held that results-oriented organizations assure that data they collect are sufficiently complete, accurate, and consistent enough to document performance and support decision making, as well as to collaborate with others who would benefit from the data."

It's not the first time GAO has criticized the property database. In a report last summer, GAO lambasted data-collection practices that led to rat-infested buildings being listed in excellent condition.

Conclusions

GAO recommended the property council develop an action plan to make sure the property database includes accurate information on historic buildings.

"Focusing on how to improve the historic building data in FRPP ... would better equip stakeholders to make decisions about where to direct limited federal resources for historic preservation and foster greater accountability and transparency."

GSA agreed with GAO's recommendations and said it has already begun taking steps to remedy the inconsistencies in the property database.

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