Report: Government lacks reliable information about excess property

The government lacks reliable information on the condition or occupancy of thousands of buildings it owns nationwide, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found in a year-long study.

Because of this managers at five major federal agencies whose properties the GAO examined don’t have a sound basis for deciding what to do with surplus or under-used property, according to GAO’s report to Congress this week.

The lack of reliable information remains a problem, eight years after a presidential executive order created an entity called the Federal Real Property Council to improve data collection on the condition and use of federal real property, said officials for the GAO, investigative and auditing arm of Congress.

The council was directed in 2004 to work with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the landlord agency for federal buildings across the country, to establish a single database “describing the nature, use and extent of all real property under the custody and control of executive branch agencies, except when otherwise required for reasons of national security,” the GAO report said. The current database lists about 14,000 excess properties government-wide, ranging from buildings to small sheds in remote locations.

The agency’s investigators visited about 180 buildings at 26 sites containing excess and under-used buildings controlled by the GSA and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Veterans Affairs.

The GAO said it found vacant buildings that had been reported occupied, buildings reported as under-used even though they were fully occupied, and severely dilapidated builings that had been reported to be in excellent condition. Investigators said they found inconsistencies or inaccuracies in information reported from 23 of the 26 sites visited.

The agencies involved all report the information differently from each other, and the Federal Real Property Council hasn’t followed sound data collection practices in designing and maintaining the property database, the GAO said.

None of the sites visited were in Ohio. The GAO concentrated on areas of the country nearer its offices, said David Wise, who led the study as director of the GAO’s physical infrastructure unit. The agency had no estimate of the total market value of the properties examined, Wise said.

His agency recommended that the GSA work with the Federal Real Property Council to develop a plan to improve the database. GAO also recommended that the federal Office of Management and Budget, which chairs the council, devise a national strategy for managing excess and under-used property.

The GSA and Office of Management and Budget agreed that more needs to be done to get excess property off the taxpayer-supported rolls.The budget office, however, questioned whether GAO had enough information to establish that the database problems are chronic.

The GSA said that, since 2002, more than 3,355 federal properties have been disposed of in efforts to reduce taxpayer expense.

The GSA said it has 124 of the 14,000 excess properties in the database and begun disposing of them. Those efforts include an online auction planned to sell off two buildings that were once part of NASA’s Glenn Research Center near Cleveland; seeking redevelopment proposals for an 80-year-old former Miami, Fla., courthouse empty since 2008, and auctioning off other properties in Idaho and Washington, D.C.

The GAO study focused on nonmilitary properties because the agency did a separate study in 2011 examining the Defense Department’s excess properties. The GAO concluded then that the Defense Department was making progress with plans to demolish more than $1 billion worth of excess property, but lacked complete and accurate data to identify still other excess holdings.

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