oversight

General Services Administration: Comparison of Space Acquisition Alternatives--Leasing to Lease-Purchase and Leasing to Construction

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-03-12.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

      United States

GAO   General Accounting Office
      Washington, D.C. 20548



      B-281673

      March 12,1999

      The Honorable Jim Kolbe, Chairman
      The Honorable Steny H. Hoyer
      Ranking Minority Member
      Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service,
        and General Government
      Committee on Appropriations
      House of Representatives

      Subject: General Services Administration: Comnarison of Snace Acauisition Alternatives-
      Leasing to Lease-Purchase and Leasing to Construction

      In House Report 105592, dated June 22,1998, accompanying the Treasury, Postal Service,
      and General Government appropriations bill for fiscal year 1999, the Committee on
      Appropriations stated that it was aware of concerns about the acquisition of new federal
      space through build-to-suit contracts.’ The basic concern was that the General Services
      Administration (GSA) was using leasing to obtain needed additional offke space when
      constructing it would be less costly to the government in the long term. The Committee
      directed that we report by no later than March 15, 1999, on GSA’s use of build-to-suit
      contracts when acquiring new federal space. The Subcommittee wanted information on the
      results of the economic analyses done by GSA when proposing the acquisition of new space
      for federal agencies. As agreed with the Subcommittee, our primary objectives were to (1)
      review the economic analyses done by GSA for leases and new construction it proposed for
      fiscal years 1994 through 1999, and (2) report on the results of analyses comparing leasing
      with construction and lease-purchase alternatives.’ The Subcommittee also wanted to know
      what effect location had on the results of an acquisition economic analysis and what other
      noneconomic factors could affect acquisition decisions.

      Results in Brief
      Although construction was almost always estimated by GSA to be the least costly approach
      for meeting long-term space needs, it was not always the approach proposed. Our review of
      the economic analyses of 24 lease and construction acquisitions submitted by GSA for


      ‘Build-to-suit contracts, also known as build-to-suit leases, are leases that, as ares& of the procurement process, the
      government signs for a lessor to build a building to meet the needs of a govemment agency or agencies. The government does
      not own the proper&y, but leases it for up to 20 years. When a prospectus is prepared for a specific lease project, it is not lu~own
      whether it will result in a build-to-suit lease. Only after the competition is complete is it known whether a project will be build-to-
      suit.
      “Lease-purchaseis an agreement between a lessor and lessee in which the lessee agrees to lease a building for a specified length
      of time and then takes title to the building at the end of the lease period.




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approval in the budget cycles for fiscal years 1994 through 1999 showed that, given the
assumptions used, construction was estimated to be less costly than leasing in all but one
case. GSA proposed leases for nine acquisitions, but leasing was the alternative estimated to
be the least costly in only one case. In contrast, for aJll5 of the proposed construction
acquisitions, construction was less costly than leasing.

To show the effect of location on the results of an economic analysis, GSA prepared, at our
request, analyses for a hypothetical building at one location in each of its 11 regions. These
analyses showed that, while estimated costs varied among the locations, location had little
effect on the end result of the analyses. In all cases, construction was estimated to be less
costly than leasing. At one location, the analysis showed that leasing would have been less
costly than a lease-purchase acquisition, but not than construction.

The major noneconomic factor identified that affected the acquisition decision was the
budget scorekeeping rules that require the budget authority for the entire cost of acquiring an
asset by construction, lease-purchase, or capital-lease to be recorded in the budget when the
acquisition is approved. Other noneconomic factors identified that could affect decisions
included unique mission or security requirements, anticipated changes in the federal
presence in a city or geographic area, and the delineation of the geographic area of
consideration for the proposed acquisition.

Scope and Methodology
To respond to the objectives, we obtained lease, lease-purchase, and direct federal
construction analyses of those leases and construction acquisitions requiring congressional
approval submitted by GSA for fiscal years 1994 through 1999 on which it had prepared
economic analyses. In addition, we had GSA (1) create a hypothetical office building
acquisition large enough to require congressional approval and then do lease, lease-purchase,
and direct federal construction economic analyses of this acquisition at one location in each
of GSA’s 11 regions to show the effect location might have on the results of such an analysis;
and (2) identify any noneconomic factors that might affect decisions to lease, lease-purchase,
or construct the needed space.

We asked GSA to identify those proposed acquisitions via lease or construction for which a
prospectus had been prepared, for fiscal years 1994 through 1999 budget submissions. A total
of 29 proposed acquisitions were identified-20 construction and 9 leases. However, five of
the construction proposals were not included in the review because GSA had insufficient
information to provide an analysis of all three alternatives. During the period reviewed,
according to a GSA official, GSA did not normally do lease-purchase analyses because
construction was almost always less costly; therefore, lease-purchase was not viewed as a
viable alternative. However, GSA agreed to prepare the lease-purchase alternative analysis for
alI the proposals where it had sufficient information to do the analysis. Six of the lease
acquisitions identified were also included in our August 6,1997, report. 3 GSA also prepared


%pace Acquisition Cost: Comparison of GSA Estimates for Thee Alternatives (GAOIGGD-97-148R,Aug. 6,1997).




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economic analyses, including the lease-purchase alternative, on a hypothetical office building
acquisition of 100,000 square feet for one city in each of its 11 regions. The location of the
hypothetical building in each region had to be a city or area that had sufficient federal
presence to justify a building of this size.

The GSA official who prepared the analyses in this report told us that he (1) reconstructed
the present-value analysis in order to compare the estimated cost to lease or construct the
space at the time the acquisition was approved, and (2) did a comparable present-value
analysis for the lease-purchase alternative. This official emphasized that there is a reasonable
range of assumptions and other inputs, such as rental rates, operating costs, interest rates,
taxes, insurance costs, and inflation rates, that can be used in any analysis. The specific
results of the analyses are dependent upon which of the various figures in the range is used.
Consequently, he cautioned that, when reviewing the results of these analyses, it should be
kept in mind that using other assumptions and inputs could yield different results.

As agreed with the Subcommittee, we did not validate the economic model or verify either
the data and assumptions GSA used to do the analyses or the results of the analyses. We did,
however, verify that the hypothetical office building met the criteria of being large enough to
require a prospectus and having a location that had sufficient federal presence to justify a
building of the size used for the analysis. The results of these analyses cannot be generalized
to the universe of leases or construction acquisitions for the selected period or for any other
years.

Our discussion of the effect of budget scorekeeping rules on the acquisition of real property
is based on a review of our past position, which was presented in our September 1994
testimony before the House Committee on Government Operations’ Subcommittee on
Legislation and National Security.*

We did our work between November 1998 and March 1999 in accordance with generally
accepted government auditing standards. We requested comments on a draft of this letter
from the Administrator of GSA. GSA’s comments are discussed at the end of this letter.

Background
As the federal government’s landlord, GSA provides office space for most federal agencies. It
manages space in about 6,500 private sector properties and 1,800 government-owned
properties. Part of its responsibility is to work with agencies to identify space needs that
cannot be met with existing inventory and recommend the most appropriate way of acquiring
the needed space. Under this responsibility, GSA is required to prepare proposal descriptions,
called prospectuses, for space acquisitions that are expected to exceed specified dollar
thresholds.” A prospectus, with its economic analysis, is not required on a lease or


“Budget Issues: Budget Scorekeeping for Acquisition of Federal Buildings (GAOIT-AIMD-94-189,Sept. 20,1994).

‘The threshold is adjusted annually. For fiscal year 1994, the threshold was $1.64 million; for ITscalyear 1999,it is $1.93 million.




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construction acquisition that is below the prospectus threshold for the year in which the
funds are sought. A prospectus is to include (1) information on the size and location of the
proposed acquisition, (2) a justification for the acquisition, and (3) an economic analysis of
acquisition alternatives. GSA no longer prepares economic analyses of any below-prospectus
threshold leases or any operating lease, including those that meet the prospectus threshold
level.

GSA is to follow Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular No. A-94, Guidelines and
Discount Rate for Benefit-Cost Analvsis of Federal Programs, dated October 29,1992, when it
prepares the economic analysis that accompanies a prospectus. The circular specifies that
the comparison of alternatives should be in present-value terms. The economic analyses are
to identify costs that would accrue while the government occupies the space. GSA uses a 30-
year present value analysis for these analyses. The analyses are to use appropriate discount
rates to adjust identified costs so that their value is expressed in terms of a common year,
and then use these discounted values to calculate a cost for each alternative. GSA is required
to obtain approval of its prospectuses from OMB, the Senate Committee on Environment and
Public Works, and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure before it
acquires the space.

Our December 1989 report on federal office space discussed GSA’s efforts to add space to the
federal inventory.’ It stated that the federal government could realize significant savings if it
owned some of the space it then leased. Specifically, the report noted that ownership would
have been less costly, and thus a preferred alternative, for acquiring space for 16 of 72 major
lease proposals submitted to Congress in 1988, but that GSA was forced to choose leasing in
these cases because it lacked sufficient funds for construction.

The findings of our August 6,1997, report on space acquisition costs, which were consistent
with those in our earlier report, showed that, for 6 of 10 proposed acquisitions analyzed,
government ownership by construction or lease-purchase would have had a cost advantage
over leasing.

Construction Was Alrnost Always the Least Costly Acquisition
Alternative, but Was Not Always Chosen
The economic analyses done by GSA on the 24 proposed acquisitions included in our review
showed that when comparing leasing to construction, in all but one case construction was the
less costly alternative. In comparing leasing to lease-purchase, in all but one case lease-
purchase was the less costly. Leasing was the least costly of the three alternatives in only one
case. However, construction was chosen for 15 of the 24 proposed acquisitions. GSA did not
propose lease-purchase in any of the 24 acquisitions reviewed.




 “Federal Office Space: Increased Ownership Would Result in Significant Savings (GAO/GGD-90-11,Dec. 22,198Q).




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GSA’s analyses for 15 construction projects included in our review, all of which had been
proposed for fiscal years 1994 through 1999, showed that government ownership by
construction or lease-purchase would have a cost advantage over leasing in all 15 cases, and
that construction was the method chosen for all 15 projects. The analysis of the alternatives
on nine lease acquisitions proposed by GSA for fiscal years 1994 through 1996 showed that
government ownership by construction or lease-purchase had a cost advantage over leasing
for eight of the nine leases. However, the major reason leasing was chosen in these eight
cases was the budget scorekeeping rules, according to a GSA official.

Further, each of the 11 analyses using the hypothetical building, done by GSA at our request,
showed that government ownership by construction would have had a cost advantage over
leasing. Also, in every location, except Denver, CO, lease-purchase would have had a cost
advantage over leasing.

Table 1 shows results of the analyses for the nine lease acquisitions proposed in fiscal years
1994 through 1996, and the comparative cost advantages and disadvantages of lease-purchase
and construction versus leasing for these proposals.

Table 1: Comparative      Cost Advantages and Disadvantages         of the Estimated Present-Value      Cost of
Lease-Purchase      Versus Leasing, and of Construction     Versus Leasing, for Proposed Lease Acquisitions
for Fiscal Years 1994 Through 1996
Square feet in thousands; dollars in millions
                                                           Estimated present value                     cost
                                            Base year      acquisition    cost for each            advantage/
                                                   for        selected alternative              (disadvantage)
Primary occupant and                  Total present-                                            Lease-
location for                 Fiscal square      value                Lease-                 purchase Construction
acquisitions    analyzed       year    feet analysis    Lease purchase Construction          vs. lease       vs. lease
Department of Justice,        1994 120.2         1993 $68.9            $65.1         $63.9         $3.8            $5.0
Washington, D.C.
Federal Election              1994 102.6         1993     56.9          50.6           49.6          6.3             7.3
Commission,
Washington, D.C.
 Reporters Building,           1994 110.4        1993     64.0          58.3           57.3          5.7             6.8
Washington, D.C.
Army Audit Agency and         1994 183.0         1993     90.9          77.9           76.3        13.0            14.6
Department of
Agriculture, northern VA
Librarv of Conaress,
suburban     MD.-             1994 214.0         1993     35.6          36.1           35.8        (0.5)
                                                                                                   . ,             (0.2)
                                                                                                                   . r

Internal Revenue               1995    184.0       1994      80.5        72.8            70.9            7.7               9.6
Service, Fresno, CA
Environmental Protection       1995    209.0       1994      76.3        70.3            68.6            6.0               7.7
Agency, Kansas City
metropolitan area,
MO/KS
Patent and Trademark           1996 1.989.0        1995    972.8        934.6           924.7          38.2               48.1
Office, northern VA
Department of                  1996    307.0       1995    148.6        122.3           121.6          26.3               27.0
Agriculture, Kansas City
metropolitan area,

Source: GSA analysis of prospectus level leases and our report, Soace Acauisition Cost: ComDarison of GSA Estimates for
Three Alternatives (GAO/GGD-97-148, Aug.6,1997).




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Table 2 shows results of the analyses for the 15 construction projects proposed in fiscal years
1994 through 1999, and the comparative cost advantages and disadvantages of lease-purchase
and construction versus leasing for these projects.

Table 2: The Comparative Cost Advantages and Disadvantages                of the Estimated Present-Value       Cost of
Lease-Purchase     Versus Leasing, and of Construction       Versus Leasing, for Proposed Construction
Projects
Square feet in thousands; dollars in millions
                                                            Estimated present value                       cost
                                                           acquisition    cost for each              advantage/
                                                   Base
                                                               selected alternative                (disadvantage)
                                               year for
Type of property and                  Total present                                               Lease-
location for                 Fiscal square        value              Lease-                   purchase Construction
acquisitions   analyzed        year     feet analysis    Lease purchase Construction           vs. lease       vs. lease
Courthouse, Phoenix, AZ        1994 345.9          1993 $126.1         $97.5           $93.8        $28.6          $32.3
Federal BuildindCourt-         1994 366.1          1994   182.3        144.8           141.1         37.5            41.2
house, Kansas3ity, MO
Courthouse, Tampa, FL          1994 240.0          1993    91.5         85.2            86.5           6.2             4.9
Federal Building/Court-        1995 600.0          1994   307.7        271 .O          244.7         36.7            63.0
house, St. Louis, MO
 Federal Buijding/Court-       1996 126.1          1995    60.1         46.1            45.8          14.0           14.4
house, Lafayette, LA
 Federal Buildina/Court-       1996 222.0           1995   97.6         76.7            77.1          20.9           20.5
 house, Omaha,-NE
 Federal Building/Court-       1996 171.4           1995   81.7          63.5           62.3          18.2           19.4
 house, Albuquerque, NM
 Courthouse Annex,             1996     71.5        1995   42.6          40.3           39.7           2.3             2.9
 Scranton, PA
 Courthouse Annex.             1997 124.6           1996   89.2          56.3            56.0         33.0           33.2
 Columbia, SC        ’
 Courthouse, London, KY        1997     62.0        1996   32.3          20.0            19.5         12.3            12.8
 Courthouse, Covington,        1997     73.0        1996   31.8          27.1            26.5          4.7             5.3
 KY
 Courthouse, Wheeling,         1999     53.2        1998    36.7         31.3            28.4          5.4              8.3
 WV
 Courthouse, Laredo, TX        1999      91.5       1998    57.3         40.6            40.6         16.7            16.7
 Courthouse, Greenville,       1999      93.0       1998    47.6         33.9            34.1         13.7            13.5
 TN
 Courthouse, Eugene, OR         1999 157.5          1998    99.0         71.4            70.6         27.6            28.3
 Source: GSA analysis of proposed construction projects.

While the costs varied from one city to the next, the results of the economic analyses of the
hypothetical acquisitions showed that construction was the most cost-effective alternative in
all locations analyzed. Table 3 shows results of the analyses for the 11 hypothetical
construction acquisitions, and the comparative cost advantages and disadvantages of lease-
purchase and construction versus leasing for these hypothetical acquisitions.




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Table 3: The Comparative                Cost Advantages and Disadvantages             of the Estimated Present-Value Cost of
Lease-Purchase                Versus Leasing, and of Construction     Versus Leasing, for Hypothetical           Office Building
Acquisitions
Square feet in thousands; dollars in millions
                                                                     Estimated present value                            cost
                                                      Base year      acquisition       cost for each              advantage/
                                                              for        selected alternative                   (disadvantage)
Location for                                 Total      present                                                Lease-
hypothetical                         Fiscal square        value                Lease-                      purchase        Construction
acquisitions              analyzed    year    feet     analysis   Lease purchase Construction              ‘vs. lease          vs. lease
Rnnton. MA      .... -                 2000
                                       _---      100
                                                  .-_      1999    $42.2         $38.1             $37.9.-        $4.1                $4.3
New York, NY
-----..I                               2000     100        1999     64.1         7---63.7          _-.63.2        - 0.5
                                                                                                                     --                 1 .o
Philadelphia, PA                       2000      100       1999     54.4           43.1              42.9         11.3                11.5
Atlanta, GA                            2000      100       1999     36.2           32.8              32.9           3.3                 3.3
Chicago, IL                            2000      100       1999     48.5           45.7              45.3           2.8                 3.1
St       I mlic     hflfl              3nf-m     Inn       1989     25 8           TV=, G            5% 5           n3                  n3


       .- _______,-.
      :le, WA                    2000        100         1999        36.3         36.0              35.8             0.3                0.4




Leasing Can Be a Viable Alternative
According to GSA, for acquisitions to fill long-term needs-20 years or more-construction is
generally the least costly alternative. However, for short-term needs-10 years or less-
leasing is usually least costly. Also, in some situations, other factors or considerations make
leasing the best choice. For example, for the Library of Congress acquisition in suburban
Maryland, the space being obtained was warehouse space, and the prospectus indicated that
it was available at a low lease cost, while the economic analysis, as shown in table 1, showed
that leasing was the least costly alternative for this acquisition. For another case, from our
August 1997 report, leasing had a cost advantage because the government had negotiated
renewal rates 20 years earlier that were extremely low and cost beneficial in relation to
construction rates.’

Both our December 1989 and August 1997 reports offered other reasons why leasing, in some
instances, may be the preferred alternative. Our December 1989 report stated, and GSA
officials agreed, that leasing can result in a lower estimated cost for a number of reasons,
such as a favorable market resulting, for example, from a glut of available lease space.
Further, the report stated that there were practical reasons for using leasing in some cases,
including the fact that no viable alternative to leasing existed because the housing need was
temporary, flexibility was required to meet changing needs, or the geographic area had little


‘The current report includes the Library of Congress example from the August 1997 report because it fell into the time kame we
were reviewing.




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federal activity. Our August 1997 report offered some practical reasons for leasing space
derived from the prospectuses reviewed, such as changing needs, temporary needs, and less
disruption of operations.

Effect of Budget Scorekeeping on Real Property Acquisitions
According to a GSA official, budget scorekeeping rules are responsible for creating the
largest noneconomic problem in real property acquisition. Currently, the budget authority for
the entire cost of acquiring an asset must be recorded up front-that is, recorded in the
budget when the acquisition is approved-so that decisionmakers have the information
needed to take the full cost of their decision into account. Thus, the total budget authority for
building construction, lease-purchases, purchases, and capital leases that commit the
government to long-term obligations must be recognized and recorded in the year that the
acquisition is approved. In contrast, the rules for ordinary operating leases require only that
the current year’s lease costs be recognized and recorded in the budget. This has the effect of
making the operating lease alternative appear less costly from an annual budgetary
perspective.

During testimony on budget issues before the Subcommittee on Legislation and National
Security, House Committee on Government Operations,8 we stated that budget scorekeeping
should be neutral among acquisition alternatives, permitting GSA and Congress to evaluate
ownership by construction, purchase, lease-purchase, or leasing alternatives on their relative
cost effectiveness. We further stated that 1990 changes to scorekeeping rules requiring lease-
purchase costs to be recorded in the budget up front helped to put lease-purchase
arrangements on a level playing field with the other ownership options and ensure
accountability in decisions to commit future government resources.

In our testimony, we said that up-front scoring of lease-purchases helped correct the bias
toward using the alternative to finance building acquisitions. However, we pointed out that
up-front scoring provided a greater incentive to use operating leases, because scoring rules
require only that the current year’s budget authority and cash outlays be recognized in the
budget for the current year. We offered a possible remedy, which, in effect, would recognize
that many operating leases are used for long-term needs and so should be treated in the same
manner as ownership options. This remedy would entail up-front scoring of the present value
of lease payments covering the same period used to analyze ownership options, thereby
making operating leases for long-term needs comparable in the budget to direct federal
ownership. Applying the principle of up-front recognition of all long-term costs for all options
for satisfying long-term space needs-construction, purchase of existing buildings, lease-
purchases, or operating leases-would be more likely to result in the most cost-effective
 alternative being selected than using the current scoring rules would.

As with any scoring approach, this one poses its own problems. If this scoring approach were
adopted, it would be difficult to reach agreement in all cases on what constitutes the type of


“See footnote number 4.




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long-term space needs that would warrant this up-front budgetary treatment. The agencies
and GSA would have to sort out space needs on the basis of a determination of whether long-
or short-term needs were involved. Further, decisionmakers would be making judgments on
what constitutes a long-term need based on projections about the future rather than on the
government’s legal commitment. Also, any existing budget caps would need to accommodate
the scoring change. A greater amount of budget authority would be needed up front, but in
the long term, budget authority and outlays would be lower because the scorekeeping rules
would promote the choosing of the most cost-effective alternative for acquiring long-term
space.

Other Noneconomic Factors Identified
In addition to the scorekeeping rules, GSA identified other noneconomic factors that could
affect the results of an economic analysis. These include unique mission or security
requirements, anticipated changes in the federal presence in a city or geographic area, and
the delineation of the geographic area of consideration for the proposed acquisition.

Agency Comments
On March 2,1999, we provided the Administrator of GSA with a draft of this letter for
comment. On March 2 and 4,1999, we received oral technical comments from the
Commissioner of, and a Senior Realty Specialist in, GSA’s Public Buildings Service. These
technical comments have been included in the report.

We are sending copies of this letter to Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman, and Senator Robert
Byrd, Ranking Minority Member, Senate Committee on Appropriations; Senator John Chafee,
Chairman, and Senator Max Baucus, Ranking Minority Member, Senate Committee on
Environment and Public Works; Representative C. W. Bill Young, Chairman, and
Representative David R. Obey, Ranking Minority Member, House Committee on
Appropriations; Representative Bud Shuster, Chairman, and Representative James L.
Oberstar, Ranking Democratic Member, House Committee on Transportation and
Infrastructure; and Representative Ernest J. Istook; The Honorable Jacob Lew, Director,
OMB; The Honorable David J. Barr-am, Administrator, GSA; and other interested committees
and subcommittees. Copies will be made available to others on request.

The major contributors to this letter were Ronald L. King, Assistant Director, and Thomas G.
Keightley, Senior Evaluator. If you have any questions, please contact me on (202) 5128387.




Bernard L. Ungar
Director, Government Business
   Operations Issues




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