By: Avery Kleinman
The Department of Defense has no idea what’s going on in more than half the properties it owns and it has no plans to figure that information out, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
The DoD’s massive collection of military real estate holdings worldwide includes more than half a million facilities located on more than 5,000 sites valued at about $828 billion. Many of these properties hold important purposes, but an alarming number (about half) are underutilized or completely abandoned. Even worse, the department is terrible at tracking which ones are which.
“Since 1997, [GAO has] designated the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Support Infrastructure Management as a high-risk area, in part due to the challenges DOD faces in reducing excess and obsolete infrastructure,” the report says. The most recent audit is the latest in a string of reports (1997, 2011, 2013) that reveal little to no progress is being made.
Officially, the department’s real estate information is tracked by the Office of the Secretary of Defense using software called the Real Property Assets Database. But in reality, GAO found that more than half of the facilities lack utilization data, and that much of the utilization that does exist is incorrect.
The Pentagon and Congress were aware of the issue even before the GAO report was released. According to Pentagon estimates, the military has more than 20 percent excess infrastructure across the United States—facilities and bases that are sitting unused or unoccupied at a cost of at least $2 billion per year. The Project On Government Oversight, along with a coalition of organizations from across the ideological spectrum, supported an amendment offered by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Florida) to this year’s defense spending bill that would prevent the Pentagon from using funds on facilities that are not being utilized and are sitting unused. A final vote on the spending bill is still pending.
“Taxpayers cannot continue paying for unused and underused buildings, especially while the nation is at record debt levels,” Murphy said. “Federal agencies as a whole must do a better job at managing their facilities. I was pleased to see bipartisan support for my common-sense amendment to root out this wasteful spending.”
The recently released GAO report is the result of a GAO audit mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014. Auditors visited 11 sites at random from the four branches of the military and compared their findings to the Pentagon’s software.
At the Army’s site, officials showed off software that checks for inconsistencies with the Pentagon property database. For the randomly selected site that the auditors planned to visit, the Army software found 45,000 discrepancies with the DoD’s information. Not to say that the Army’s system is that much more trustworthy—their records indicated that facilities had been reviewed in various years including 0013, 0201, 1776, 2201 and 3013.
The other visits didn’t go much better. Auditors found large, multi-building complexes listed as single structures, buildings that had been demolished but were listed as still in existence, and abandoned structures that were listed as in use.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s atrocious property recordkeeping is far from unique within the federal government. In 2013, GAO released a similarly discouraging investigation into the General Services Administration’s system for keeping track of federal buildings, the Federal Real Property Profile. Auditors discovered that 23 of the 26 federal buildings they visited had inaccurate information about utilization, condition, annual operating costs, and value. Among the 26, 19 had incorrect utilization information, such as a USDA site that has been abandoned since 2009 but was listed as in use both that year and 2010.
All types of errors are problematic, but inaccurate utilization data particularly leads to inordinate and unnecessary government waste. Federal agencies are paying to maintain buildings that could have been sold or leased by the government years ago for thousands or even millions of dollars each.
Thankfully, GSA has made a concentrated effort to offload excess federal properties. According to Federal Times, the agency has identified 14,000 properties that the government no longer needs that cost about $190 million a year to maintain. In perhaps its most high profile project, GSA is leasing the Old Post Office building, located in the Federal Triangle area of Washington, D.C., to the Trump Organization for 60 years to transform it into an upscale hotel. Renovations began in July on the underused building, which previously cost the government $6 million a year in upkeep.
GSA reports that since 2012, property sales have brought in $139 million. The Pentagon needs to follow the lead of GSA and implement a better system to identify underused or abandoned buildings and subsequently sell or lease those facilities.