Armed with more data, can agencies shed unwanted property?

The Obama administration admits the government doesn’t need all of the 2.8 billion square feet of property it owns and leases worldwide. But it’s struggled to identify the property it can safely shed. New tools out this summer could provide a breakthrough, Office of Management and Budget Controller David Mader told members of Congress in two separate hearings Tuesday.

Whereas agencies have had to work with a static database of property known as the Federal Real Property Profile, the new software will let them get a better handle on their inventory by the end of the summer, he said.

“Agencies will be able to take the data and do some analysis and say, ‘What if this property would age out, or become excess or underutilized? What will that inventory look like? What can I do with it?'” Mader testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We’re expecting people to develop a five-year, forward-looking plan that basically says, ‘Year-over-year for five years, what am I going to do to reduce my property footprint?'”

OMB has told agencies to submit drafts of their five-year strategies by mid-July. They’re expected to finalize those strategies by September.

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The federal government spends $21 billion a year on building maintenance and operations. A third of that money goes to pay leases. The Obama administration has made it a priority to consolidate federal property, shedding rented space wherever possible. Public Buildings Commissioner Norman Dong said agencies disposed of 342 properties last year, generating nearly $43 million in savings.

Excess Property: GSA is auctioning off this former Customs Service building in Baltimore. (GSA)

But that could be an overstatement, based on studies conducted by the Government Accountability Office. It found that some properties were simply transferred from agencies to GSA and, thus, remained part of the federal footprint, testified David Wise, director of physical infrastructure issues at GAO.

“We don’t have a great handle on what we have and how it’s being used,” he said. “We’re not confident in the data. We don’t think it’s reliable.”

Mader admitted that he could not be 100-percent sure of the statistics he now has. But, he said, agencies have made considerable progress since the administration released a status report last summer. He estimated that, of more than 9,400 buildings that are at least partly vacant, about half could theoretically be disposed of immediately. Agencies are not willing to part with another third of those buildings, even though they are not being used. The rest are in use, but not to their fullest extent.

Administration lobbies Congress to revamp property-disposal laws

While the Obama administration is pushing agencies to better manage their holdings, it is hampered by overly restrictive laws, he said. It takes at least nine months, and often longer, to dispose of excess federal property. A requirement that agencies study whether unwanted buildings could house the homeless adds months to the process. Yet only 122 of more than 40,000 properties screened over nearly three decades have been found suitable for housing, GAO reported last year.

“So many buildings that are being screened are in enclosed military facilities and can’t be used for that purpose, or they’re in [Department of Veterans Affairs] campuses — the same thing — or they’re in remote areas,” said Wise. “But they all go through this process of screening, Federal Register notices and so forth. The [Housing and Urban Development Department’s] record-keeping is cumbersome. It’s really an awkward and time-consuming process without a whole lot of payoff.”

An amendment to the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, now being debated by the Senate, would exempt some Army property from the screening, Wise said, adding that he considered it a good beginning.

Right now, agencies have little incentive to prepare properties for disposal because of the considerable time and money it requires, Mader said. Congress could motivate agencies by letting them keep a portion of the proceeds from property sales, he suggested. A dozen agencies, including the Forest Service and the Coast Guard, now have limited authority to do that.

“We have examples across the federal government of things that work. We need to coalesce that and say, ‘If we raise it up across the entire government, we can be much more effective,'” he said.

Another hurdle is the lack of funding for the consolidation process, Mader said. The General Services Administration asked for $200 million in fiscal 2016, an increase from the $70 million Congress has allocated in recent years. Some lawmakers have mentioned zeroing out that fund.

“Quite candidly, it would grind the program to a halt,” he said.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he planned to reintroduce legislation to streamline the property-disposal process. Several House members have done the same. Despite having bipartisan support, similar bills have faltered in the past, often because of disagreements over the methods that would be used to dispose of property.

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