- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says the $215 million it will cost to upgrade its downtown Washington headquarters is justified for a building past its prime, pushing back against a report Wednesday that said the agency hasn’t presented a “sound business case” for spending that much.

The CFPB says the new energy-efficient windows, roofs and elevators and upgraded plumbing are critical for a building that hasn’t been renovated for almost four decades.

Still, the independent consumer advocacy bureau faced fresh criticism from Republicans after the release of an inspector general report estimating the cost of renovations at $145 million, along with an additional $70 million for moving staff and renting space while the main building is being worked on.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican who requested the inspector general report in January, said the findings are “deeply troubling” and lead to even more questions about the agency’s “unaccountable design.”

“The continuously growing price tag is a tremendous waste of funds,” he said.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray said earlier this year that if he were a consumer, he “would be complaining a lot about that building if I owned it.”

“It’s a classic white elephant,” Mr. Cordray told a House committee in January. “As far as I’m concerned, this is an unavoidable one-time expense that we simply want to put behind us. Again, it’s not something I would choose to do if we could avoid it.”

Agency staffers said the repairs may be expensive, but they are needed for a building hasn’t been renovated since 1976, and needs architectural, energy and safety upgrades.

“The CFPB’s headquarters is a government asset that is past its prime and needs to be brought up to current standards,” said Jen Howard, a spokeswoman for the CFPB. “Government buildings are frequently renovated.”

She said plans to renovate the building were made and announced in February 2011, before the bureau became an independent agency and formalized its investment policies.

“The CFPB did not consider alternatives because the decision to renovate the building had already been made,” she said.

Ms. Howard said the agency has been transparent about cost estimates.

Two years ago, the government published a cost of $55 million for the project — an amount officials say was actually intended to be a construction cost estimate for one year of a 10-year plan.

Construction costs include replacing windows with high-efficiency and blast-resistant units, upgrading plumbing and electrical systems, and installing new energy-efficient equipment throughout the building, including elevators.

The General Services Administration, which runs federal properties, claims the cost estimates of the project are in line with projects of similar size and scope they’ve worked on over the last several years.

In March, the bureau projected that its number of employees would increase by about 500 to 1,624 by the end of September, which would translate to approximately $133,000 per employee for the overall project and 310 square feet per worker if they all ended up in the single building.

The CFPB, set up as part of the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, is supposed to be an independent regulator working on behalf of consumers. Republicans have generally criticized the board and its extensive powers, while Democrats have been supportive.

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