Government waste: State-owned land, buildings sit vacant

It's your money -- your tax dollars -- but the 2NEWS Investigators found what lawmakers call a costly flaw.

"People, when they hear about this, are just absolutely shocked," said Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.

Land owned by the state, sitting vacant year after year, all while bills to maintain it stack up.

The 2NEWS Investigators also found empty state-owned buildings collecting dust.

During our six-month investigation, we poured over state-owned property documents.  After months of research, we uncovered acres of vacant land owned by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

According to state data, the department bought just under an acre of land in the city of Buffalo near the Oklahoma panhandle for $3,600 11 years ago, and it's still an empty field.

That's not all, our investigation took us 200 miles southwest of Tulsa to Marietta. There we found 4.6 acres of land that the Oklahoma Department of Human Services purchased in 2008 for $75,000. Still, five years later it remains completely vacant.

We wanted to know why, so we went to DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell.

"The intent was to build a new building, since construction costs started sky-rocketing it just wasn't good use of taxpayer dollars to build a new building," said Powell.

The agency didn't build a new building on either property, but Powell says it did spend $16,000 to mow them.

Once an agency doesn't need a property it can put it on the surplus list, also called the underutilized list, and sell it. Powell thought the parcels had been put on the list years ago until the 2NEWS Investigators told her otherwise. In fact, DHS tells us the properties were added to the underutilized list immediately after we interviewed them.

LIST:  Vacant and underutilized properties rated by tier (http://bit.ly/YA00Xd)

We took what we uncovered to Murphey.

"Certainly, buying a piece of property and letting it sit for year after year is very bad decision-making," said Murphey.

It's not just vacant land, it's also vacant buildings, what the state calls underutilized properties.

The National Guard Armory, near the state Capitol, is on the list. It's been vacant for about two years.  It's used for storage. The building is valued at $2 million.

While it may not be costing the taxpayers any money to keep it closed, in these tough financial times lawmakers want to know the state is not selling them.

"If they're underutilized properties, they need to be liquidated. They need to be privatized, put back in the free market and then the revenues from that liquidation needs to be used to better take care of the assets we do have," said Murphey.

And there's more, the 2NEWS Investigators found many of the buildings on the list are at least 100 years old and it would be expensive, in many cases, to tear those buildings down. 

We found a number of vacant buildings on university campuses.

The University of Science and Arts, for example, has three vacant buildings. The president of the university, John Feaver, says he plans to open two vacant buildings soon, but a third building, valued at $200,000, may remain closed for a while. Since becoming president, Feaver has made great progress, going from six vacant buildings in 2000 to three and soon down to one.

Feaver also hopes to open the final vacant building but will have to wait until the money is there. Most of the help the campus receives in funding for buildings comes from private donations, not the state.

"There has been pretty severe limits in terms of capital investment," said Feaver.

But Murphey says a plan to sell off vacant state-owned properties could help out the university and other existing buildings that need maintenance.

The idea is to use the money from the sale for state-owned building improvements.

First though, Murphey says the state needs to create a central place where all state buildings are tracked, instead of having each agency track its own properties.

"The state is managing it's real estate in 163 different ways," said John Estes, with the Oklahoma Office of State Management and Enterprise Services, the agency that would oversee the list.

The Oklahoma house speaker and Murphey say they hope to go from 163 ways to one.

"Now that we know the problem, and thanks to your reporting we know even more, we can start to talk about the solution," said Murphey.

Search all state properties by agency (http://bit.ly/Wd7fpT)

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