Downsizing courts could save GSA big bucks

Thursday - 5/27/2010, 10:08am EDT

Mark Goldstein, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, GAO

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

Times are tight and things are bad all over, as the saying goes. The Government Accountability Office is trying to lend a hand by looking at ways to save money, and, in the case of federal courthouses, some space.

The GAO took a look at the work being done by the General Services Administration on a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative.

Of the 33 courthouses completed in the past 10 years, the GAO found 3.56 million square feet of extra space built in, which works out to an estimated loss of $835 million in wasted construction funds.

There is hope, though, for 29 courthouse projects currently in development.

While the report is still preliminary, Mark Goldstein, the Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at GAO, told Federal News Radio the losses happened due to three basic reasons:

  1. GSA essentially overbuilt "above the congressionally authorized size,"
  2. the judiciary overestimated how much space they would need, and
  3. "since judges don't share very much at all, that if they had gained greater efficiencies through sharing, you wouldn't need as much space either."

The judiciary did a survey of courthouses, said Goldstein, that found judges were using their courtrooms about two hours a day. While other groups may use the space occasionally, "roughly half of the time, the courtrooms are dark and there's actually nothing going on," said Goldstein.

So the GAO tried to model how to increase the efficiency if judges share courtrooms.

We found that, indeed it is true, you could both save money and increase efficiency and have to build, in the future, far fewer courtrooms. The problem is the judiciary has not been very much interested in sharing, and they have started to put together in place some policies. They now allow some senior judges to share and plan to do so with magistrate judges as well. But they've been pretty slow to do so, and as a result, there is a lot of extra space out there.

In addition to the wasted construction funds, the GAO also found the extra space runs about $51 million a year to maintain. Goldstein told the Federal Drive that represents "money that could be used in other places in a tight budget environment, which is what the United States faces these days."

Funds have been lost due to poor planning and poor oversight, said Goldstein, but that doesn't have to continue. "You can't change what's been done obviously, but you can redesign courtrooms in the future so that there is more sharing."

The GAO is waiting for responses from GSA and expects to issue a final report next month.