More than 12,000 government properties have been identified by the White House as being no longer needed, yet in order to get its hands on the expected $15 billion to be gained from dumping these buildings, the government needs Congress to act.
For that reason, President Obama will attempt to push through legislation to form an independent committee to scout out federally-owned properties that could be sold, closed or even knocked down.
Right now, political and cultural difficulties have created an “inertia-based culture,” says Jeff Zients of the Office of Management and Budget.
The sale of federal properties is governed by twenty separate laws, and this needs to be streamlined urgently, according to Zients. For example, one law which came into being in 1988 forces agencies to give serious consideration to converting unneeded properties into shelters for the homeless before they can be sold.
There are also financial difficulties to be dealt with. As Zients explains, “Some agencies cannot even afford to sell off properties because they lack the finance to do so – such as transaction costs for example.”
To circumvent the problem, the administration is set to release a full list of government surplus properties for the first time, with the hope that private citizens will be able to help come up with ideas about what should be done with them.
Zients believes that the move is a “vital step in transparency.”
According to data from the Office of Management and Budget, all 50 states have properties they don’t need. Western states have by far the most, with the biggest culprits being the Department of Interior and the National Forest Service.
Agencies were ordered to create plans to shed unneeded real estate by 2012 in order to save the government $3 billion. However, while plans have been drawn up, quite a few bodies may not reach that goal so easily.
For instance, the National Science Foundation claims that due to poor planning in previous decades, its headquarters is “maxed out”. It has to spend $2 million each year just to be able to rent sufficient space to hold meetings.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture maintains that its presence in all 50 states is essential so it can be close to the rurally-based communities it deals with.
Obama’s plan to reduce the number of obsolete properties calls for up to 40% of the expected savings to be funneled back into the federal agency budgets to act as an incentive for them to take action. However, Congress is considering several different proposals, including one from Jason Chaffetz, the representative from Utah, which asks for considerably higher savings - $19 million – with 20% of this being returned to agencies.
Chaffetz does support the Obama plan outline. “If we can cut out the politics then we can speed up the process for once,” he said.