White House revamping plan to sell federal buildings

Posted on Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Obama administration is hoping to revamp plans to sell off thousands of federal buildings by recruiting outside experts to determine which office towers, courthouses and warehouses the government no longer needs.
Once established, a new independent commission would recommend potential savings to Congress, ideally identifying at least $15 billion in potential cuts in the next three years, according to plans set for release Tuesday. Nobody yet has been asked to serve on the board, but the White House plans to recruit public and private sector experts, according to administration officials familiar with the plans who shared details Tuesday evening.
"Larger scale reform is needed to achieve larger-scale results," said one official, not authorized to speak publicly about the plans.
The new commission is an expansion of orders Obama made last summer to cut $3 billion worth of building costs by identifying locations the government could divest to private owners.
The federal government owns and operates about 1.2 million buildings and other structures around the world with a total annual operating and maintenance budget of $19 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget. About 14,000 properties are vacant and another 55,000 underused, according to a government audit.
But a cumbersome review process and the lack of public information on what properties might be placed on the market has earned criticism from government auditors and private developers.
A recent Government Accountability Office report cited properties in California and Missouri that the government declared surplus in 2002 but had yet to sell by 2009. Locally, lawmakers are eager for the government to finally decide whether to sell the Old Post Office Pavilion -- a mostly-vacant federal property located ideally situated along the Pennsylvania Ave. corridor.
Commercial real estate experts don't expect the government to meet its goal of saving $8 billion because most of the excess properties are likely old, poorly located World War II-era sites.
Even well-located sites fail to earn top dollar: A federal building in downtown Bethesda sold last summer in an online auction for $12.5 million; the asking price was $14 million and the opening bid was just $100.
Expect the White House on Tuesday to link the new board to its Accountable Government Initiative, an ongoing effort to cut wasteful government contracts, move more government services to the Internet and cut $33 billion in costs as part of Obama's 2012 budget.
THE WASHINGTON POST By Ed O'Keefe; Capital Business writer Jonathan O'Connell contributed to this report.

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