WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) today called for a closer examination of the problem of vacant and underutilized federal properties.
“The federal government spends millions of dollars each year to maintain empty buildings. This is government waste, plain and simple,” said Collins during a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
The government’s real property assets are worth an estimated $328 billion and include more than 3 billion square feet of building space. Some of the federal government’s assets, such as St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., are historically significant and valuable, yet deteriorating and rundown.
The federal government also has considerable property that it no longer needs. In August 2003, the General Accounting Office released a report identifying 600 vacant properties and 327 underutilized properties owned by three agencies: the General Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the U.S. Postal Service. These 927 properties represent more than 2,000 acres and 32.1 million square feet of vacant or underutilized space.
According to that GAO report, retaining unneeded real properties presents federal agencies with significant potential risks for “lost dollars because such properties are costly to maintain, and lost opportunities because the properties could be put to more cost-beneficial uses, exchanged for other needed property, or sold to generate revenue for the government.”
During today’s hearing, “Deteriorating Buildings and Wasted Opportunities: The Need for Federal Real Property Reform,” Collins also took a closer look at the West Campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a Washington, D.C., facility owned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and occupied by the District of Columbia’s Department of Mental Health. The 182-acre property has fallen into disrepair and is costing taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain. Needed repairs are estimated at more than $400 million.
Some of the buildings on the West Campus of the property, which Collins toured earlier this month, suffer from extensive water damage; mold, asbestos, and flaking lead paint are also prevalent problems. Floors and ceilings have rotted and caved in, caused in part by the heavy furniture that remains in the building and exacerbated by the still-operational steam pipes. In addition, personal medical files and billing records were strewn throughout the main building, with wide-open windows offering outsiders easy access, Collins noted.
“The deterioration of the West Campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital is a particularly tragic example of how the federal government’s mismanagement of its real property can result in massive waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Collins. “If a 182-acre historic landmark, just two miles away from the Capitol can be so mismanaged, what confidence can we have that thousands of other federal buildings scattered across the country are being managed properly to preserve their value and to ensure their best use?”