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Editorial: Slash building footprint to save

Sep. 30, 2012 - 03:24PM   |  
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The current debate over whether to shrink federal government could extend to office buildings and other structures, an area ripe for consolidation and savings.

Consider these numbers: There are 49,000 buildings and structures at the Agriculture Department; 153,000 at Interior; 4,200 at Justice; 18,700 at Energy; 30,800 at Homeland Security; 9,400 at the General Services Administration; 57,300 at Transportation; and 9,600 at Veterans Affairs. And that doesn’t include those of countless smaller agencies or the Defense Department, which manages more than a half-million buildings and structures.

According to GSA’s 2010 federal property report, the latest available, the government spends $31 billion a year to operate and maintain 890,000 federal buildings and structures. GSA leases another roughly 9,000 office spaces on behalf of federal agencies at an annual cost of $5.4 billion.

Yet even with intense pressure to slash government spending, agencies have made little effort to downsize their enormous infrastructure footprints.

One notable exception: The Agriculture Department this year announced it would shutter 259 offices nationwide to save $150 million. That’s good business practice, but it still leaves the department with nearly 49,000 buildings and structures.

Clearly, the potential for cost savings is huge — in the hundreds of millions, or even billions, a year — and agencies are not doing nearly enough to capitalize on that. That owes largely to bureaucratic and legal red tape and the absence of overarching guidance and coordination of how to consolidate properties and shed excess. That’s underscored by the fact that there is no comprehensive database of federal and postal properties that property managers can use to consider relocating options. Most agencies lack leasing authority and cannot make such decisions; those that do have varying approaches for how they value and assess office buildings. Inexplicably, neither the administration nor Congress sees enough value in surmounting these barriers to make something happen.

The administration pushed a federal property reform measure that promotes more co-location of federal offices at U.S. Postal Service facilities — a great idea, since the Postal Service has roughly 67 million square feet of building space that is vacant and available for tenants. But Congress took no action on that measure.

A couple of bills pending in Congress also would promote more co-location of federal offices, but they, too, have gone nowhere.

This is simply fiscal negligence by Congress. Lawmakers in this cash-strapped government have a duty to demand savings wherever possible. The first step must be to demand a thorough review — with a tight deadline — of how agencies can consolidate. Then they must cut red tape for agencies, provide resources and wield the power of the purse string to order compliance. Federal facility downsizing and co-location are obvious ways to cut costs substantially — even a Congress as deeply divided as this one should be able to agree on that.

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