Report: Old courthouses need $760M in repairs

The cost to the federal government to build new courthouses could be much higher than originally thought, a new report has found, as estimates often leave off the costs of repairing and selling old structures the new construction will replace.

The General Services Administration has 40 old courthouses in its possession that will likely need $760 million in renovations before they can be used again, the report concluded, raising questions about what officials will do with the buildings.

But the amount needed for renovations hasn’t been included in budget estimates by the agency, which could represent the true cost of building a new structure to replace an old one, said the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm.

Estimates on how much it might cost to refurbish old buildings before selling them could “provide greater transparency to congressional decision-makers regarding the full costs of courthouse projects,” the GAO said.

An expansive building program has constructed 79 new courthouses during the last 20 years, federal data show.

“Because these buildings are usually located in city centers, there is often a high level of interest by the public, local governments and Congress regarding their future use,” the GAO said. “However, reusing or disposing of old courthouses can be difficult because many were built in the 1930s or earlier, do not meet current court security standards, and those that have been designated as historic are subject to historic preservation requirements.”

The GSA was able to get rid of 25 courthouses, but many others are still in use. With new digs often nearby, however, the amount the buildings are being used is dwindling. On average, about 14 percent of the space in an old courthouse isn’t being used, the federal watchdog said, compared to the average of just 4.8 percent unused space in other federal buildings.

The GSA said it would expand its reporting to include the costs of selling an old structure while building a new one.

Federal officials are trying to find uses for the buildings that are beneficial to all, the GSA said, and noted there have already been some success stories. For examples, the former courthouse in Hammond, Ind., is now the administrative center for a church; and the retired courthouse in Greeneville, Tenn. is now a bank office building.

But it can sometimes be difficult to find tenants for the building, especially because so many require repairs. After the Justice Department moved out, the courthouse in Sacramento, Calif., sat unused for 10 years, and the courthouse in Reno, Nev., went half vacant for 20 years.

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