- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Federal courthouses built larger than necessary have cost taxpayers $835 million in wasted construction funds since 2000 while the extra space requires $51 million annually to maintain, the Government Accountability Office told a congressional committee on Tuesday.

The GAO found that the 33 courthouses or courthouse annexes completed in the past decade contain 3.56 million square feet of unnecessary space, said Mark L. Goldstein, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues.

A GAO draft report says the wasted space is enough to house about nine average-sized courthouses and blamed the extra space, in part, on a lack of oversight by the General Services Administration (GSA), the real estate arm of the federal government.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management, said the waste was unacceptable at a time when federal services and programs were being pared back.

“For some time now, GSA has considered not only courts, but federal agencies to be GSAs consumers rather than the American taxpayer,” she said. “Time and time again over the past decade, the agency has allowed the courts and federal agencies to redesign, reassign and rethink space decisions with apparently no thought of the financial consequences.”

Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, also said Congress would authorize no new federal courthouse construction without details on programs to control spending.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he was “deeply concerned overall that the courthouse construction program has not been administered well by GSA.

“Squandering funds by overbuilding projects is always a mistake, but to do so in an era when funding for GSA capital projects is severely constrained begins to border on the outrageous,” he said.

Mr. Oberstar noted, however, that some standards of measurement used by GAO to produce the audit would not have been applied before 2007 and called the measurements an “aggressive estimate” of wasted space.

Nevertheless, he wondered whether waste estimates would double if GAO had analyzed the 66 federal courthouses built in the past 20 years as opposed to just the 33 projects completed in the past decade.

The GAO said the 3.56 million square feet of unnecessary space at federal courthouses located among other places in Las Vegas, Denver, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., represented 28 percent of the total 12.76 million square feet constructed. Of that:

• 1.7 million square feet was caused by construction in 28 courthouses in excess of congressional authorizations. Seven courthouses were 25 percent larger than authorized, with one, the federal courthouses in Phoenix, growing 50 percent beyond its authorized size.

• 887,000 extra square feet was caused by the judiciary overestimating the number of judges the courthouses would have in 10 years.

• 946,000 extra square feet was caused by district and magistrate judges not sharing courtrooms.

Robert A. Peck, commissioner of the GSA’s public buildings service, said he had serious concerns with the GAO report, pointing out that it was still a draft and that Tuesday’s hearing took place before GSA was able to fully prepare a response.

He labeled as “misleading” much of the information contained in the report.

“We dispute most of the significant findings in this draft report, and we are in the process of responding to GAO,” Mr. Peck said.

Among the disputed conclusions, Mr. Peck said, GAO factored in square footage contained in multistory atriums and courthouses with lofty ceilings — what he termed “phantom square footage.” He said GAO overestimated the cost to build and maintain such space.

“This is an incorrect assumption and significantly overstates the cost of constructing and maintaining phantom floor space in a building,” Mr. Peck said. He said the phantom space also accounted for about half of the square footage that exceeded congressional authorizations.

Michael A. Ponsor, U.S. District Court judge for the District of Massachusetts and chairman of the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Space and Facilities, also took issue with parts of the report. Judge Ponsor said the numbers of judges can fluctuate from the time a courthouse is planned and the 15 to 20 years it can take until it is occupied.

“To say that the space is ‘extra’ because of incorrect judge estimates, as noted by GAO in its draft report, is misleading,” he said. “The space will be needed at some point in the near future.”

Julie A. Robinson, U.S. District Court judge for the District of Kansas and a member of a Judicial Conference committee on case management, said the GAO was flawed in its calculations of how judges and magistrates should share courtrooms.

“As with any type of modeling effort, the courtrooms model must be based on certain assumptions, the formulation of which requires a great deal of expertise and understanding of how courts actually work,” she said. “Unfortunately, none of these assumptions were provided by the GAO in its report.”

Twenty-nine courthouse projects are currently in development, the GAO said. A final report on the subject is due in June.

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