Feds spend billions on unused, empty buildings

Everyone sat on plastic folding chairs, on a concrete floor in front of rows upon rows of empty industrial shelves.  Speakers sometimes had to pause, to keep the rumble of trucks outside from drowning out their words.

An abandoned warehouse was an unusual spot for an official Congressional committee hearing last week, a far cry from the gilded halls of Capitol Hill.  But the Oversight and Government Reform Committee thought the location would help draw attention to one area of federal waste: billions of dollars spent over the last decade on maintenance and upkeep for empty buildings the government doesn’t use.

“We have vacant buildings like this eating taxpayer dollars and bureaucrats unable to make a decision,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the subcommittee on Government Operations.  “At a time in which the government is struggling to try to make ends meet and our deficits are climbing, I think it’s appropriate that we look at the multi-billion dollar waste and practices that do not adequately address the problem of vacant properties and underutilized assets.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ chief watchdog agency, the federal government owns more than 100,000 office buildings, warehouses and other structures that aren’t in use.  And maintenance and upkeep on those vacant buildings costs an estimated $1.7 billion each year.

It’s one type of spending that Ranking Member Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said should come to an end.

“Every dollar spent on an unnecessary lease is a dollar diverted away from a mission-critical function,” he said.  “In this current era of austerity, inefficiencies such as these have real world consequences for the citizens they serve.”

As the seat of the federal government, D.C. alone has roughly 14,000 of the abandoned buildings.  The location of the committee hearing, a warehouse located in southeastern D.C., was used by the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff for storage until 2009.  Now it sits vacant and unused, costing tens of thousands of dollars in maintenance and upkeep each year.

“This is a $70,000 a year hearing,” Connolly joked.

But officials at the General Services Administration, the government’s landlord, said it’s not as simple as listing a property on the market.  First, other government agencies must be given a chance to use the building if they want.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims had been interested, but eventually decided not to use the warehouse, said Michael Gelber, the Acting Deputy Commissioner for the GSA’s Public Building Service.

Now the GSA is trying to evaluate a fair market price for the structure, Gelber said.  By selling the warehouse, GSA expects it can get $19 million to spend on repairs at other government facilities.

“We have a large number of facilities that are in need of repair,” Gelber said.

The money lost on the vacant buildings isn’t the only issue lawmakers are concerned about.  The abandoned warehouse in southeast D.C. could be given to the local government and turned into a vibrant community center, supporters argued.

“This property is just off from M St., which essentially has been remade into an entirely new community,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in the House but has no voting power.

Holmes Norton said she would be supportive of a proposal that would give the property to the city.  The warehouse is in one of Washington’s most rapidly growing neighborhoods, the waterfront along the Potomac River.  And it’s just two blocks away from National’s Ballpark, where D.C.’s professional baseball team plays.

Local residents are supporting the “Half Street Market initiative,” a proposal to turn the building into a multi-purpose education and culinary center.

“Half Street Market presents a unique and exciting opportunity to create a public amenity that will promote economic development, support small business, and prepare D.C. residents for D.C. jobs,” said David Garber, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area the warehouse is in.

Garber described the plan as a “vibrant public market and restaurant that will operate a workforce development and education program for D.C. residents, host community education programming and provide a shared-use commercial kitchen.”

Local resident Tom Worrell, 67, said he and his wife just bought a condo across the street from the abandoned warehouse, partially because of the Half Street Market plan.

“One of the decisions in that factor was seeing the proposal for this several months ago,” he said.

If the warehouse were converted into an educational and culinary center as proposed, Worrell said it would help train people for jobs in D.C.’s many restaurants and cooks, waiters and other staff.

“We think it’s a very good use of the area, good educational use,” he said.

But first control of the warehouse has to be handed over to the city, a move that would likely deprive GSA of the payday it was hoping for.  Because the agency is just starting the process to sell the warehouse, it hasn’t even been listed as “excess” property, the first step in allowing the city government to take over control.

Gelber said any decision the GSA reaches will keep in mind that the property is in the middle of a growing community.  Chairman Mica said he hopes a mutually beneficial compromise could be reached between the GSA and the city.

The hearing comes as D.C. citizens overwhelmingly voted for a measure that would give the city control greater control over its budget.  As a federal territory, D.C. doesn’t have the full autonomy of a normal city, as almost much of its spending be approved by the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, as politicians continue to debate the best use of the facility, the warehouse sits unoccupied, costing money.

“The problem is no one’s doing anything,” Mica said.  “The process they’ve gone through…has taken an extraordinary amount of time, and here it sits.”

One of Mica’s colleagues echoed his concern.

“There are two ways to get things done here in Washington, D.C.: slow and never,” lamented Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., upon hearing GSA did not have a firm timetable to sell the building.

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