Returning land to private owners


You might be surprised who the biggest landowner is in the United States. It’s the federal government. By a long shot. And thousands of properties owned by the federal government should be transferred to private owners or nonprofits or local government to help save taxpayers money and help local economies and our communities. Legislation I have worked on for years that the president just signed will help do just that.

It’s true that many federal properties, from post offices to military bases, are important to the government doing its job. But even the federal government admits that it’s not fully using thousands of the federal buildings it owns, and some that others want to use are sitting vacant. Rather than sell, rent, or demolish those that are beyond repair, Washington wastes an estimated $1.67 billion annually on maintaining them. Almost $2 billion a year of taxpayer money!

It’s no wonder that every year since January 2003, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has placed real property management on its list of “high risk” government activities—activities that are especially vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse.

So why doesn’t the federal government do the smart thing and get rid of these expensive properties and make better use of our taxpayer dollars?

The main reason is bureaucratic red tape. There are more than 20 steps that a federal agency is required to complete before disposing of a single property.

By law, an agency looking to unload unneeded property must first offer it to state and local governments and qualified nonprofit organizations, often at a discount or even for free. Then they have to determine whether the property can be used by the homeless, even if the property is obviously unsafe. Then they have to conduct mandatory environmental and historic preservation assessments that sometimes take years. Agencies may face billions of dollars in extensive repairs and renovations, even for buildings that will end up being demolished. Sometimes the government has to pay rent throughout this entire years-long process.

I think this is just plain wrong. Right now, millions of American families are feeling the middle class squeeze across our country, and they’re cutting their own spending to make ends meet. Many are struggling to pay their own rent; they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for rent on excess government buildings, too.

I’ve been working on this issue for years. When I served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, I identified more than 21,000 real property assets across the country that were unneeded, worth $17.7 billion. I proposed a pilot program to cut the red tape and speed up the process of getting rid of this property, but Congress never took it up. I’ve also been working on this in the U.S. Senate.

In Ohio, we know firsthand the benefits of selling off unneeded federal land. As one example, I worked with Congressman Bill Johnson to cut through red tape and speed up a sale of excess federal property in Belmont County, converting a wasteful, unnecessary federal property into a veterans memorial and a business park that created jobs in Southeast Ohio. Right now, I am working with the city of Brecksville to transfer valuable, vacant property owned by the federal government. The process is way too complicated.

But we’ve got some good news. Earlier this month, two bills that I have worked on for years to deal with this problem finally became law.

The first is called the Federal Asset Sale and Transfer Act, or the FAST Act, which I sponsored and will speed up that 20-step process I talked about and get rid of more than $500 million of federal property.

The second is the Federal Property Management Reform Act, bipartisan legislation I co-authored that will make two reforms to the federal government’s use of real estate. The first is that it will require that the federal government develop long-needed uniform best practices for managing its property. The second will require an updated inventory of all real estate—and real estate costs—at each agency, with updated lists of what properties they really need going forward. That’s just common sense, and it will be key to making agencies accountable for getting rid of their underutilized property. It’s unbelievable that we don’t have that information now.

With these bills now law, the government will now have better information, better management practices and less red tape so they can start to unload properties that are underutilized or vacant. This will save taxpayer dollars, add jobs, and help our communities.

Rob Portman represents Ohio in the United States Senate.

Rob Portman Contributing columnist Portman Contributing columnist

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