Get rid of underused federal buildings, California lawmaker says

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, wants the federal government to shed its underused buildings, and now he's in a position to try to do something about it.

From Fresno's downtown courthouse to Washington's ornate Old Post Office, auditors have identified tens of thousands of public buildings emptier than they should be. Filling up the vacancies or getting rid of the superfluous is proving an elusive goal.

"Underperforming assets are costly to all taxpayers," Denham said Thursday. "The waste is significant."

Newly appointed chair of the House subcommittee that oversees public buildings, Denham convened his first oversight hearing Wednesday inside an empty, unheated annex to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. The stark setting was a deliberate theatrical touch, criticized as excessive by one Democratic lawmaker but undeniable in its impact.

"The sad fact is, there are buildings like this all over the country," Denham said.

Nationwide, auditors informed Denham on Thursday, the federal government owns 45,190 "underutilized" buildings that cost $1.6 billion annually to operate. They come in different flavors.

Some buildings appear too big for their current use. The $133 million Fresno courthouse, opened in 2005, spans 495,912 square feet. In large part because Congress hasn't authorized additional judges, only three of the Fresno building's six district court courtrooms are currently used, a 2010 audit noted.

Previous audits have identified myriad other underutilized federal properties in California, including Sacramento's courthouse, a federal building in Merced and land owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs in Fresno.

Even when government officials decide to sell excess property, it can take a very long time.

In 2007, for instance, the General Services Administration announced plans to sell the historic Modesto post office at the corner of 12th and I streets. In October, having been stymied the first time around for various reasons, officials renewed plans to auction off the 23,770-square-foot building erected in 1933.

"(The) GSA continues to hold numerous buildings that have been listed as excess for years," Government Accountability Office official David J. Wise testified Thursday, adding that "the lengthy disposal process may inhibit ... ability to achieve cost savings."

Wise attributed the delays to a combination of competing interests, a "complex legal environment" and legislative obligations. Real estate developers may have one idea for a property, while community activists may have another. Congress has imposed time-consuming requirements, like checking whether the property can be used for the homeless.

Denham said he's been frustrated so far in his efforts to secure a comprehensive list of the underutilized federal buildings, both in California and nationwide. Flexing his newfound chairman's muscles, he indicated Thursday that he might subpoena the documents he wants.

The surplus federal property problem has been noted by auditors for many years, and it is not directly related to the recent Sacramento controversy over former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid to raise money by selling 24 state buildings. The idea was recently quashed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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