9 Investigates: Government buildings empty or underutilized

by: Dave Faherty Updated:

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NORTH CAROLINA - A Channel 9 investigation uncovered thousands of government buildings tax dollars helped pay for are sitting empty or are underutilized. 

Channel 9 found buildings with running power, but no one inside.

Kenneth Pace doesn't have to walk far to see empty government-owned buildings near his home in Hot Springs.   He says for eight years a home and several buildings once used by the US Forest Service have sat vacant.

"It's getting to be an eyesore quick. It needs paint on the outside. The roof looks like it needs work. During the year the property is all tore up. They don't maintain it,” he said.

 In Burnsville, this half million-dollar office building has been empty since the fall of 2012.  The Forest Service says it is trying to sell it to the town but when Channel 9 called city hall they told me they have no plans to buy the property.

In Wilkesboro, Channel 9 walked right past the metal detectors at the Johnson Hayes Federal Building where court is no longer in session and most of the offices are empty. The General Services Administration says everyone will be moved out by the end of the summer when the building will be declared excess like dozens of others across the Carolinas. 

"This is a major problem because it is very costly problem to the taxpayer,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry.

McHenry supports legislation to sell the properties but under the government's own rules it is difficult. The vacant property is first made available to other federal agencies. Then state and local governments get a crack followed by nonprofits.

Finally a 25-year-old law requires the government to see if it could be used as a homeless shelter. The cost of maintaining those buildings is expensive.  

"Just for underutilized property it is a billion and a half annually. It is real money we're talking about and the taxpayer dime should not be utilized to have empty buildings sitting in their communities,” McHenry said.

In South Carolina, Channel 9 found a building that once housed the Veteran Administration Regional office in Columbia empty. There's enough office space in there to cover nearly two football fields. 

But when Eyewitness News looked through the window, not only were there empty offices but also lights still on without anyone in the five-story building.

Althea Wright walks by the building every day on her way to work and hasn't seen anyone in it for nearly two years. 

"It's a waste of my taxpayer dollars. Especially if there is still lights and stuff on and using the water.    If it is not totally shutdown it is a waste of taxpayer dollars. If it is totally shut down, it is a waste of a building," Wright said.
 
The General Services Administration says the building is slated for demolition due to deterioration, asbestos, and security concerns. Power is still running to it to comply with safety requirements.  

But taking down unused buildings can be expensive.
 
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are more than 200 empty government-owned buildings, including homes and small sheds.
 
Starting this month the Parkway will spend $1.2 million to take 80 of them down.
 
"They are also filled with various hazardous materials like asbestos, lead paints, old light ballast," said Terry McAlrath.
 
The GSA said it is working aggressively to dispose of excess properties. Since 2010, the agency claims to have generated more than $200 million in proceeds from sales.
 
But some like Pace wonder with so many properties out there can the government act quickly enough. 
 
"It's crazy for them not to sell it because it's not doing any good as far as a blank piece of land. It will have to be something they have to tear down,” he said.