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$835 million wasted building courthouses that are too big, investigator says

By Phillip Swarts

Friday - 3/15/2013, 8:29pm  ET

The federal government can't read a tape measure and doesn't seem to care whether the courthouses it builds remain within the size limits mandated by Congress, and the result is more than $800 million in wasted taxpayer money, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog arm.

The report said the General Services Administration's construction measurement and management are so poor that GSA built the equivalent of nine too many courthouses between 2000 and 2010.

During that period, construction on 32 federal courthouses exceeded their Congressionally approved sizes by 3.56 million square feet, costing taxpayers $835 million. But the waste doesn't stop there.  Investigators say the government is forced to maintain the space it doesn't really need, at an annual cost of $51 million.

For poor management of construction that led to millions of dollars in waste, the General Services Administration wins this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction given by the Washington Guardian to examples of poor management, oversight and unnecessary spending.

It all happened because GSA, which oversees federal buildings, wasn't accurately measuring floor space or keeping an eye on compliance with the congressional authorization, the watchdog office said in two reports released in 2010 and 2013.  The agency "did not focus on ensuring that the authorized gross square footage was met in the design and construction of courthouses until 2007," investigators said, noting that structures built after 2007 are still exceeding authorized sizes.

"GSA lacked sufficient controls to ensure that courthouses were planned and built according to authorized gross square footage, initially because it had not established a consistent policy for how to measure gross square footage," investigators said.

The GSA overestimated the number of judges working at the courthouses, investigators said, and also did not consider the possibility of judges sharing courtrooms.

But GSA officials took issues with the report, saying that inspectors inaccurately measured square footage by including the empty upper space in atriums and applying the idea of 'courtroom sharing' to buildings constructed a decade ago, prior to the budget saving policy.

GSA officials did not return calls seeking additional comment.

"GSA officials stated that courtroom space is among the most expensive of courthouse spaces to construct," the GAO said, noting that sharing courtrooms should be possible due to how infrequently they are sometimes used.  "According to the judiciary’s data, courtrooms are used for case-related proceedings only a quarter of the available time or less, on average."

One of the newest courtrooms, the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami, Fla., has space for 16 courtrooms, bringing the city's total up to 29.  But with a courtroom-sharing plan in place, it would only need 17, the GAO said.

"It is important for the federal judiciary to have adequate, appropriate, modern facilities to carry out judicial functions," inspector said.  "GSA and the judiciary have an opportunity to align their courthouse planning and construction with the judiciary’s real need for space. Such changes would greatly reduce construction, operations and maintenance and rent costs."