Obama seeks special panel to unload federal real estate

McClatchy NewspapersMay 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Wednesday formally proposed a special commission to help shed some of the federal government's 14,000 surplus properties.

By using a nonpartisan panel resembling those impaneled for closing military bases, administration officials hope to sidestep the impediments that until now have hindered surplus property disposal.

"Having an independent board of experts can push through political gridlock," said Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, adding that "it will change how Washington works."

Though Obama previously proposed a surplus property commission earlier this year, as part of his fiscal 2012 budget plan, officials on Wednesday provided specific legislative language for the first time.

The legislation would establish a presidentially appointed, seven-member Civilian Property Realignment Board to evaluate surplus federal properties. The commission's recommendations to "significantly reduce" the real estate inventory would be voted up or down by Congress, with no amendments allowed.

There are some 12,000 surplus federal properties within the U.S., and an additional 2,000 overseas, as of a 2009 count. The property board wouldn't deal with military or national security sites, national parks or wildlife refuges.

The federal properties currently identified as surplus range from empty lots and unused roads to empty warehouses and office buildings. Many have little or no market value.

Obama administration officials said Wednesday that they believe their proposed bill is the first of its kind covering non-military surplus properties. The proposed surplus property commission will need approval from Congress.

"There is definite interest in there," U.S. Controller Daniel Werfel said Wednesday.

Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., for one, has used his chairmanship of the House subcommittee that oversees federal buildings to urge faster disposition of what's excess.

On Wednesday, Denham in a prepared statement called Obama's commission proposal a "good first step," and added that he will soon be introducing his own surplus property commission legislation. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah already has authored a bill with 27 co-sponsors to compel faster disposal of surplus property, though without a commission.

"The government can no longer foot the bill for vacant buildings," Chaffetz declared when he introduced his bill.

In 2009, the federal government reported spending $134 million to maintain buildings that formally have been declared excess. Maintaining federal buildings that are not yet declared surplus but that are underutilized costs about $1.3 billion annually.

The administration contends that improvements in the management of surplus property can save taxpayers $15 billion over several years. Officials didn't specify Wednesday how all the putative savings add up.

The proposal closely mirrors the base realignment and closure process first used for military facilities in 1988. Designed to minimize political gamesmanship, the commissions submit closure plans that must be accepted or rejected in their entirety

Since 1988, five military base closure rounds have taken place, shutting down more 350 facilities that have ranged from California's Mather, McClellan and Castle Air Force bases to Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina and a naval station in Washington's Puget Sound, among many others.


A searchable database of some of the surplus properties


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