Senate to trim 'land bank' of office space

Monday - 6/13/2011, 8:27pm EDT

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is examining legislation to make it easier to sell off more than 14,000 unused federal properties.

The problem, said Robert Peck, the commissioner of the General Services Administration's Public Building Service, is the federal government hoards more office space than what it needs.

"When we ask agencies, 'Well how about this property out there, it looks like you're not using it terribly intensively,' often the answer is, 'Well but things will change, we might need it,'" said Peck. "And so in essence, we have some federal agencies - and GSA, I'll have to admit, in some cases I'll admit that we do it too - that the agencies are land banking the properties, And to be able to say, 'I don't really think you need that, and it's time to move on and to think differently about your function and go someplace else,' that is something I think we could use more clout to do."

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said letting government buildings fall into this "land bank" creates a drain on the federal budget, since the government must pay maintenance costs without getting any benefit from the building.

"We don't want these properties if they're costing us money," Begich said. "The political controversy of getting rid of properties that no one uses - at least as a mayor, as someone who sat as mayor for five years and 10 years on the city council [of Anchorage] - is not really controversial. The controversy occurs that you don't do it, and they become dilapidated, falling apart and deteriorating where the neighborhoods then get upset that you haven't done anything."

The committee reviewed the White House's legislative proposal to change the way agencies get rid of under-utilized or unused property.

Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, said the process of shrinking real property holdings would be modeled after the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission.

Congress first implemented BRAC in the 1980s to eliminate unnecessary military installations that couldn't be shut down because members of Congress were unwilling to close bases in their own districts. Like BRAC, the new commission would prepare a list of recommendations and send it to Congress for an up or down vote.

Under this BRAC model, there will be fewer obstacles blocking the quick sale of many federal properties.

Special interests, like state-funded housing for the homeless, also will have less control over the available buildings. Currently under Title 5 of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, state-run homeless housing services get preference whenever the government wants to dispose of a property. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said turning federal property into housing makes for a bureaucratic headache.

"What we should say is here's how much property we have, here's our commitment to the homeless," he said. "Forget all this and go sell the property and give some of the money to the homeless and let that happen."

Supporting Coburn's proposal, Begich said private developers can help take unwanted property off the government's hands.

"There is no property that doesn't have value. Someone will figure it out," Begich said. "I've seen this time and time again with properties where there is no public purpose, but there's a sliver, and they take it and develop it in some way, and it's amazing what they will do."

Coburn said selling to private developers meets the federal government's obligations to simultaneously provide for the poor and to rein in spending. "When we're sitting at $14 trillion worth of debt and we're drowning in debt, and we're saying instead of making smart moves -- the right appropriate economic move - we're going to give a building to a state or a city or something like that by law because we have to, when in fact what we should be doing is selling it and lowering the debt, and then we have an obligation to help take care of the homeless," said Coburn.

Having worked on cutting federal office space for 13 years, Coburn said Title 5 is "the number one thing" that blocks progress on the movement.

Begich said the next step is to inventory and value all disposable federal property, setting aside buildings that can be repurposed by the local communities. Private contractors may then bid on the remaining properties.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on public buildings approved a bill in May setting up the civilian BRAC committee, similar to the proposal from the administration.

Jory Heckman is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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