The Federal Government Spends More than $1.7 Billion a Year to Maintain Thousands of Empty Buildings

No amount of incentives can bring order to the massive disorganized leviathan that the Federal Government has become. 

The Federal Government Spends More than $1.7 Billion a Year to Maintain Thousands of Empty Buildings
By J. Allen Tharp

By J. Allen Tharp

For years I have been a proponent for selling off all unused and unoccupied Federal Government buildings, as well as unneeded Federal land. Transferring federal property to private entities could provide additional funding to the federal treasury. These funds could be fenced off to only apply to lowering or paying off the national debt. Under private ownership, a side benefit would be that the property would then become taxable by local and state authorities. Since the feds control nearly half of the land in the western US and hundreds of thousands of buildings, the potential income is huge. 

The federal government currently spends more than $1.7 billion a year to maintain tens of thousands of empty buildings while other agencies are leasing or buying new space.

Thousands of shuttered federal buildings throughout America are left vacant to deteriorate and crumble due to this problem not being addressed. Therefore, agencies incur not only unnecessary ongoing costs but also much higher repair costs if they do ever try to sell the properties before the buildings can be disposed of. This makes them less likely to be repaired and sold at all.

The Federal Government does not even know how many buildings it owns or leases, much less how many are vacant. The GAO says they have 900,000 buildings and structures, while the GSA reported 735,000.  A Congressional Research Service report from 2010 estimated around 77,000 of these buildings are vacant or underutilized. However, the GAO told the Senate that they can’t be sure if these numbers are right because the GSA’s Federal Real Property Profile is not reliable. The actual number could be much higher.

I will list below just a few examples of federal property mismanagement and malfeasance.

  • The Department of Interior: Federal property mismanagement is not restricted to a few branches of the Federal Government. It occurs in every department. The Daily Report reported that, according to a government watchdog, the Interior Department officials have no idea how much land they bought for $815 million, nor if the properties are being used for their intended purpose.
  • The U.S. Forest Service: The UFS admits that decades of their fire suppression policies have disrupted natural fire cycles and turned many western forests into tinderboxes. Where widely spaced trees used to grow, now the forest floor is covered with dense deadfall and underbrush. This results in larger, more intense fires that can burn the publicly owned forests to the ground. According to their own estimates, 90 to 200 million acres of federal forests are at high risk of burning in catastrophic fire events. These ill-advised bans have not only exacerbated the fire danger but also left them more susceptible to disease, insects, and high winds.
  • The Bureau of Land Management: the Government Accountability Office testified in Congress that in 2004 the BLM earned approximately $12 million in grazing revenues but spent $58 million implementing its grazing program.
  • General Services Administration: The GSA owns a firehouse in Baltimore with a moldy interior and collapsed ceilings that hasn’t been used in more than a decade.
  • The GSA had a large warehouse in Fort Worth that was abandoned for years at a cost of $475,000 per year to maintain.
  • In Miami-Dade County, the Dyer Federal building has sat empty since 2007, although the Miami-Dade College repeatedly attempted to buy or lease the property. Because of neglect and disuse during this extended vacancy, the building has suffered damage that the GSA estimates would now cost a whopping $60 million to correct. So taxpayers continue to spend $1.2 million annually to maintain this single unused federal building. 
  • Social Security Administration: At a cost of over $6 million annually, the Social Security Administration alone is paying rent on office spaces that remain largely unused or are being misused as storage spaces. Several of the SSA’s offices are less than 50-percent occupied, according to an Office of the Inspector General report.

These problems are inherent and pervasive in federal bureaucracy, because there is no sense of urgency about saving money that is not coming out of your own pocket. Elected politicians are much more interested in pushing policies and plans that will help them at re-election time. They have not seen this as an issue that motivates the electorate.

But their legislative bungling through decades of attempts at well-intended social engineering have also created major roadblocks to the divestiture of unneeded government assets.

  • The Federal Real Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 forbids most agencies from putting up their properties for sale. Instead, they must work through GSA, which first offers the property to other federal agencies. This policy is intended to encourage better management of the total federal real estate portfolio. 
  • The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 directs agencies to register historic properties with GSA, a designation that means agencies must consult with assorted stakeholders as to what can be done with the structure.
  • The National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 obliges agencies to assess the environmental impacts of a property disposal before disposing of the property. 
  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 mandates agencies either clean up contaminated federal property before offloading it or get assurance the new owner will do so.
  • The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002 amended CERCLA and established a brownfields rehab program. Unwanted federal properties with contamination may be slated into this program. 
  • The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 requires agencies to offer surplus property for use by entities aiding the homeless. Since 1987 only 122 properties of the 40,000 buildings that were screened ended up being transferred to nonprofits aiding the homeless. 

These are only a few of many statutes that serve as hurdles to complicate and delay offloading federal properties. Collectively, this mishmash of government regulations means that now it takes years to dispense with unwanted federal properties. It is much easier to do nothing, so nothing has been done.

We can incentivize government agencies to participate in disposing of these properties expeditiously and making the whole process more prompt and less wasteful, but the problem can only be downsized by downsizing the Federal Government. No amount of incentives can bring order to the massive disorganized leviathan that the Federal Government has become. 

Allen Tharp is President of the San Antonio Tea Party.

 

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