WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn sparred Thursday with an advocate for the homeless over problems with getting rid of surplus federal buildings.
At a Senate hearing, Coburn, R-Muskogee, said a federal law that gives local homeless agencies a chance to acquire unneeded federal buildings has created a backlog of properties that cost billions of dollars to maintain.
Coburn told Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, that the group had prevented the federal government from disposing of excess property and blocked his earlier efforts to change the process.
“I guess I should be flattered,” Foscarinis said.
“You're very effective,” Coburn said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, says the federal government has 45,000 “underutilized” properties that cost nearly $1.7 billion a year to operate. The White House says there are 76,000 underutilized buildings and 14,000 that have been designated as unneeded.
President Barack Obama wants to create an independent commission, using the base closure commission as a model, to identify excess property and make recommendations on how best to get rid of it quickly. Congress would have to accept or reject the entire list and couldn't make changes.
Foscarinis testified that any plan to hasten the disposal of federal properties should preserve Title V, the law that allows homeless agencies to apply for the buildings. She acknowledged that the process can take months but said it could be streamlined, and that Title V was not the main reason property disposal gets hung up.
Coburn said advocates for the homeless should focus more on getting a share of the money that could be made from selling federal property than protecting a law that slows down the process by offering many properties that would never be suitable for their needs.
According to testimony from a GAO official, there are many impediments to disposing of property. If a federal agency no longer needs a building, the property must first be offered to another agency, then to nonprofit organizations and state and local governments.
“As a result of this lengthy process … underutilized or excess properties may remain in an agency's possession for years and continue to accumulate maintenance and operations costs,” the GAO says.
The White House budget office says Obama's plan would allow the independent commission to cut through much of the red tape.