Cleaning House: White House Eyes Sale of 14,000 Unused Federal Buildings

Selling 14,000 vacant government properties could save billions, officials say.

March 02, 2011, 6:04 PM

March 3, 2011— -- Five office buildings in Fort Worth, Texas, a million-square-foot warehouse and parking lot in Brooklyn, New York, and thousands of other government-owned properties sit vacant every day, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year to maintain.

The Obama administration says it's time now to shutter them for good and sell them to help trim the federal deficit.

The White House announced Wednesday that it would form an independent board of experts to help the federal government "cut through red tape and politics to sell property it no longer needs."

"The plan will save taxpayers $15 billion over the first three years the Board is fully up and running," said Jeff Zients, the federal chief performance officer and the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Zients said the administration has already identified 14,000 properties that are "excess," or vacant, and ready to be sold. The full list will be made public within the next month.

"There are unneeded properties throughout the country, from downtown city centers to suburban shopping districts to rural locations," he said. "When you go property by property, you see the properties range from empty warehouses to underutilized office buildings."

The proposed so-called Civilian Property Realignment Board would formalize their recommended real estate sales and issue a proposal to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

The plan is modeled after the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has closed hundreds of military installations since 1989, officials say.

Twenty-four federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, reported more than 45,000 underutilized buildings in fiscal year 2009, according to the Government Accountability Office. The annual cost to operate them is estimated at $1.66 billion.

President Obama issued a memorandum in June 2010 setting a target of $3 billion in savings through closure of underutilized properties by 2012. The latest announcement sets the bar much higher, at $15 billion in savings.

But experts say the bureaucratic process of selling off and consolidating federal property is lengthy and complex.

The web of interest groups that have stakes in the location of government offices -- including local governments, private real estate firms and environmental groups -- are all allowed to weigh in on a decision. Other legislative requirements also slow down sales.

Last year, ABC News found dozens of examples across the country of vacant, underused and sometimes dangerous federal buildings, siphoning millions in taxpayer dollars, despite repeated commitments by government leaders to cut through the red tape.

Sitting on a sunny hilltop in Milwaukee, Wis., the chapel at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs complex is a shell of its former self. The crumbling arches of the gothic-style building make it unusable. Still, the VA is wasting $348,000 every year to maintain it.

Just outside Chicago, in Maywood, Ill., a 58,000 square-foot building at the Hines VA complex has been vacant for more than 15 years. Holding onto the building drains away crucial VA dollars, but the Administration can't sell it.

"That's not something I can do as a VA director. That would be Congress," said Robert Beller, the head of the VA, in March of last year.

The federal government owns and operates more than 1.2 million buildings at an annual operating cost of $19 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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