WASHINGTON (AP) – The government is spending billions of dollars to maintain vacant and underused federal property while allowing maintenance backlogs at such national treasures as Ellis Island, Independence Hall and Yellowstone National Park, congressional investigators say.

Restoration and repairs of federal buildings will cost “in the tens of billions of dollars,” the General Accounting Office concluded in a report prepared for delivery before a House committee on Thursday.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said Congress needs to give the government’s landlord agency, the General Services Administration, better tools to transfer, sell and lease property.

“When the government is spending billions of dollars each year to maintain unneeded or vacant buildings, and when government buildings are in such bad shape that agencies are forced to lease costly space elsewhere and leave their former space empty, it’s time to act,” Davis said.

Government-owned buildings include an asbestos-contaminated office building in Charleston, S.C.; the vacant and deteriorating former main post office in Chicago; and 61 historic, mostly vacant Civil War-era hospital buildings in Washington.

The GSA said in a statement that it supports congressional efforts to reform a property management system that is operating under 1959 rules.

Many agencies are blocked by law from effectively addressing vacant space, deferred maintenance and historical preservation, the agency said.

For instance, revenue from sales of buildings goes to the general treasury rather than an agency’s own budget, taking away the incentive to dispose of the property. Some agencies cannot lease properties or participate in financial partnerships with private business.

The Bush administration has proposed legislation to give federal agencies authority to exchange or transfer federal property among themselves and expanded authority to lease buildings or space in facilities still used by the government.

The proposal would “grant agencies the necessary tools to manage their assets more effectively and efficiency,” Office of Management and Budget official Linda Springer said in testimony prepared for the committee.

The report said excess or underused property costs the Defense Department $3 billion to $4 billion annually. Vacant Department of Veterans Affairs space cost the government $35 million in 1999, the last year available, and costs associated with excess Energy Department facilities exceeded $70 million annually, according to a 2002 report.

However, the GAO did not have reports from many other government agencies with similar problems.

The deferred maintenance at Ellis Island and the other historic properties is part of an $8 billion-to-$11 billion backlog at the Interior Department, but that figure pales in comparison to problems at Defense.

While the Pentagon no longer reports on repair and maintenance backlogs, it estimated in 2001 that the cost of bringing its facilities to a minimally acceptable condition would be $62 billion. The cost of correcting all deficiencies was estimated at $164 billion.

Besides maintenance and security expenses, holding onto vacant properties costs taxpayers in lost opportunities, because the facilities could be exchanged for other, needed property or sold to generate revenue. Local economies suffer when federal property occupies a valuable location.

The federal government also wastes money by leasing buildings rather than paying up front.

Federal property assets largely reflect the technology and work force of the 1950s.

“In the last decade alone, the federal government has reduced its work force by several hundred thousand personnel, and several federal agencies have had major mission changes,” the report said.

The Defense Department has been saddled with excess buildings since force reductions after the end of the Cold War. The Department of Veterans Affairs was left with unused space when it switched in the mid-1990s from traditional hospital services to greater use of outpatient services. The Energy Department is no longer producing new nuclear weapons, but still maintains facilities designed for that purpose.

“At the same time, technological advances have changed workplace needs, and many of the older buildings are not configured to accommodate new technologies,” the GAO found.

On the Net:

House Government Reform Committee: http://www.house.gov/reform/

General Accounting Office: http://www.gao.gov/

AP-ES-06-04-03 2107EDT

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