Federal real estate portfolio needs better organization, less red tape

The federal government reduced its facilities footprint the equivalent of three Pentagon buildings in the past five years, and it’s looking to double that amount of saved space through fiscal 2020.

Auditors say the government needs to organize its portfolios, but agency officials say more money is needed from Congress.

“We can do so much administratively,” said Office of Management and Budget Controller David Mader, during a Sept. 23 House Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets hearing. “I’ve been personally working with the House and Senate in trying to get both chambers to agree on some kind of legislation to move forward. In addition to the legislative solutions,  we must invest to make the necessary reconfigurations, relocations and disposals that will result in future cost avoidance. While we’ve made good progress, significant efficiency opportunities remain to be realized.”

The OMB controller asked the committee to support the President’s fiscal 2017 budget, which includes a $100 million request for the General Services Administration’s consolidation fund, and would allow GSA to use rent funds for construction of new facilities and the maintenance of existing ones.

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Mader said between fiscal 2011 and 2015, Congress underfunded GSA’s Federal Buildings Fund by more than $5 billion.

“That prohibits GSA from making necessary repairs to federal buildings, delayed construction of critical new federal facilities,” Mader said.

Earlier this summer, the House passed the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act of 2016, which was put on the Senate calendar in July.

“I have to re-emphasize, as frustrated as the members are and the chairman … I’m frustrated, too, that we can’t get the House and Senate to agree on legislation that everybody agrees on: That we need savings coming back to do more disposals, we need [the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act] streamlined,” Mader said. “We’re as frustrated as you are.”

Mader said that under the 2012 Freeze the Footprint policy, the government reduced its across-the-board portfolio by 24.7 million square feet between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2015, saving the government about $300 million in rent, and operations and maintenance costs.

In 2015, OMB also released a National Strategy for Real Property, which Mader said requires agencies to implement a 5-year rolling planning process that sets annual square foot reduction and disposal targets and prioritizes the disposal of unneeded and inefficiently used properties.

The fiscal 2016-20 plan is to cut another 61 million square feet of office and warehouse space from the government’s portfolio.

But there are other areas where agencies can take the lead to help improve the government’s overall collection of real property.

David Wise, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, testified that a lack of reliable data, a complex disposal process and limited accessibility to some federal property were all reasons why the government struggles to rid itself of unwanted real estate.

“There’s still problems with having a clearly accurate and comprehensive real property database,” Wise said. “I know that OMB and GSA have been working hard to try to improve that, but we have still found continuing issues with how agencies report the data as it cycles back up into the larger database. That’s a continuing problem, meaning that for federal real property managers, if you don’t really know what you’ve got, and what condition it’s in, how do you make rational management decisions?”

GAO reported that according to GSA’s Federal Real Property Profile (FRPP) database, in fiscal 2015, 23 federal agencies reported more than 7,000 excess or underutilized properties.

Michael Gelber, deputy commissioner for GSA’s Public Buildings Service, said his agency is working to address data accuracy, including issuing new validation and verification procedures for certain FRPP information.

GSA in January launched a newer version of the Real Property Management Tool, Gelber said, which allows agencies to view leases and occupancy agreements, rent per square foot, operating and maintenance costs, and compare information on an agency or government-wide level.

GSA also this summer stood up an Asset Consolidation Tool, which lets agencies see federal real estate in areas in certain geographic locations, which can help with consolidation efforts.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky). said these tools “would be extremely valuable, particularly if the database is accurate, if the database lists the constraints on each of the properties and in a consistent way across all of the various departments.”

“Getting an accurate inventory of this is really important,” Massie said, adding he would like to see the database information shared with the private sector.

Gelber said his office is reviewing what information would be appropriate to share with Congress and the public.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) urged Wise and GAO to work with state and local governments when considering other uses or new owners for federal property.

“What we all get when we go back to our districts, or when we talk to local governments, whether it’s a perception or a reality — I think it’s a little bit of both — they don’t want to deal with it, because it’s too cumbersome,” DeSaulnier said. “So there are lost opportunities for all of the entities there, within the statutes and just the perception the bureaucratic process is too difficult.”