One of the central reasons given by agency leadership for moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out of Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, was that the cost of remaining in the D.C. office would exceed the $50 per rentable square foot rate cap established by the General Services Administration.
But according to a Department of Interior Office of Inspector General report published Sept. 1, those assertions were misleading, as the agency could not have renewed its lease on the D.C. space anyway, no matter the cost.
The theoretical cost of the space itself was never estimated by either DOI or GSA, which manages federal property and lease agreements.
According to the report, discussions began in 2016 to allow the lease for the BLM headquarters at 20 M Street in D.C. to end without renewal. Those offices and employees would then be moved to the Stewart Lee Udall DOI Building — otherwise known as the Main Interior Building — which is owned by the government outright.
“By housing BLM in MIB the Department will save $4 million dollars per year and will satisfy our commitment to the General Services Administration to improve the space utilization of this building by increasing occupancy post MIB modernization,” former DOI Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Susan Combs wrote in a May 2019 memo.
“[The Office of Facilities and Administrative Services] is reviewing all space assignments in the MIB to identify space that can be put to better use and will be meeting with all bureau and office space managers in the coming weeks as they prepare a plan to meet this requirement.”
BLM would have had to notify GSA of its desire to continue the lease at 20 M Street by 2017, which it did not do, meaning that there was no possibility of renewing the lease once it expired.
According to the IG investigation, when preparing statements and letters to Congress on the planned move, BLM staff communicated with GSA experts to determine how expensive remaining at 20 M Street would be. Those GSA experts noted that the estimated cost would be around $50 per rsf, but that they had not conducted an official cost estimate.
“We found that the DOI and BLM representations to Congress that a new lease at 20 M Street was not possible because the new rate would exceed $50 per rsf were misleading,” the IG report said.
“There are two inaccuracies in each of these statements. First, these statements assert that the new lease rate would definitely exceed $50 per rsf. The evidence indicated that GSA officials repeatedly stated that DOI officials could use $50 per rsf as an estimate. None of the evidence indicates that GSA officials told DOI personnel that the rate would definitely be higher than $50 per rsf. In the DOI’s and BLM’s statements, though, the GSA officials’ $50 per rsf approximation morphed into a statement that the rate would exceed that $50 rate. The second inaccuracy in the DOI and BLM statements is that the documents make an erroneous causal connection between the cost of the renewed lease and the BLM’s inability to renew that lease.”
Members of Congress and employee groups have been critical of the decision to move as simply a stunt to take federal offices out of the D.C. area — one that will negatively impact the effectiveness of BLM leadership and force many longstanding employees to quit rather than relocate.
The move was undertaken as part of a series of efforts to move federal agencies and offices outside D.C., one of which was considered a means of “draining the swamp” of federal employees, according to then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
The report also calls into question the quoted savings listed as incentive for the move. Then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior Joseph Balash told reporters in a July 2019 call that the move could save between $50 million to $100 million over 20 years.
The estimates for moving BLM employees to the main DOI building included in the 2019 Combs memo would have the agency saving approximately $80 million over that same period.
The report found that the statements were made out of “morphed” information, not intentional malice, and did not examine the motivations for scrapping the original plan to move employees to the DOI building in favor of relocation to Colorado.
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.