- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

Some members of Congress are questioning whether the General Services Administration wasted taxpayers’ money by leasing offices for the FBI instead of buying or building more of them as the agency expanded after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The GSA, the agency that manages the government’s property, is currently studying options to buy 16 buildings and build another six to replace offices the FBI has under lease.

But members of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee say the government would have received a better deal by acting more promptly to build or buy the offices instead of leasing them.

“These are large and expensive leases,” said Rep. Sam Graves, Missouri Republican, during a May 10 congressional hearing. “They are costly build-to-suit leases with expensive security requirements.”

Build-to-suit means the building owner designs a leased space to the specifications of a tenant.

FBI and GSA officials said leases allowed them to expand quickly to meet congressional mandates to counter terrorism threats. Leases also allow them more flexibility in changing locations.

Mr. Graves estimated that even if the government spends $1.7 billion to build the same amount of office space the FBI uses now, it could recover the costs within 11 years compared with the higher expense of renting.

Since 1999, the office space used by the FBI has increased by nearly one-third, raising the cost of its rent by about $136 million a year.

“Clearly, there is a definite cost advantage to ownership,” Mr. Graves said. “Colossal government waste is involved with leasing over government-owned facilities.”

About 13 percent of the FBI’s offices nationwide are in the Washington area. They include the FBI’s headquarters at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the Washington Field Office downtown and a warehouse in Alexandria. The warehouse is leased, but the other buildings are owned by the government.

A building for 400 FBI employees is under construction near Manassas, called the Northern Virginia Resident Agency. The Peterson Cos. is to build it under a long-term lease agreement with the FBI that includes special security design features.

“The practice of continuing to lease buildings instead of going forward with new construction seems to be another example of thinking that can often be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting Democratic member of Congress, “has always been the chief advocate of government ownership of federal buildings since joining the subcommittee 17 years ago,” said Doxie A. McCoy, her spokeswoman.

Mrs. Norton is chairman of the House subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management.

FBI and GSA administrators say they agree owning is often less expensive than leasing, but Congress left them no time after the September 11 terrorist attacks to expand quickly into their own buildings.

The 9-11 Commission that recommended changes to U.S. national security strategies asked the FBI to participate in “joint terrorism task forces” with other agencies and to share space with them in secure buildings.

“These were immediate recommendations of the 9-11 Commission,” said Pat Findlay, the FBI’s assistant director for facilities. “We had to develop a really fast way to accomplish this. The build-to-suit leasing program was the only means that met the FBI’s mission requirements.”

In 1999, the FBI occupied a little more than 10 million square feet of commercial space at a lease rate of $222.5 million a year. Last year, the FBI occupied just over 13 million square feet of space and paid $354.3 million in rent.

“Leasing facilitates the leveraging of scarce resources because GSA need only budget for the annual rental commitment,” said MaryAnne Beatty, GSA spokeswoman. Leasing also provides additional flexibility as requirements and locations change.”

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