Your tax dollars at work: Heating and cooling empty buildings Congress won’t sell

Jeff Zeleny, Richard Coolidge, and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players
Your tax dollars at work: Heating and cooling empty buildings Congress won’t sell

The Fine Print

Meet the Army’s chief real estate agent, Katherine Hammack.

As the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, she is leading an effort to cut costs by getting rid of buildings the Army no longer uses. The challenge: Congress won’t sign off on the plan to finish the job.

“The Army's got about a billion square feet of infrastructure, and current estimates are about 20 percent of it are excess to need,” Hammack tells The Fine Print.

“We have a choice: The choice is to close that base...Our other choice is the expensive one, and that's to keep those buildings heated and cooled, maintained when no one’s inside. And that's the expensive choice that I don't think the taxpayer wants us to make,” she says.

Hammack points to Camp Roberts, a California base that hasn’t been fully occupied for four decades, as an example of the Army’s unneeded infrastructure. Of the 800 buildings on the base, only 500 are used.

“There are about 300 old Army barracks that are excess to need,” she says. “So there are acres and acres of very similar buildings that were built during World War II, that were needed during World War II, that have been sitting there empty and unoccupied since 1970.”

According to the California National Guard, some demolition is already underway at Camp Roberts, but additional funding is needed in order to complete the plan.

In addition to cases like Camp Roberts, where buildings have sat idle for many years and fallen into disrepair, Hammack says there are also many buildings in good condition that could be sold to private companies.

Hammack explains that closing unused Army buildings, like those at Camp Roberts and other bases across America, is politically unpopular on Capitol Hill because of the negative impact closures have on surrounding communities.

“It's controversial any time you close anything anywhere, and nobody likes it because there is always some utility to that function,” she says.

How did the Army come to have so many extra buildings on its hands? It has to do with the shrinking size of the service.

“In World War II, the Army was a force of 8 million, and so we built up infrastructure so we could train those soldiers, we could house them,” Hammack says. “So we have warehouses and barracks that supported an army of 8 million when we're now an Army of 570 [thousand] that's reducing down to 490 [thousand].”

To find out how Hammack thinks a political decision will come on this issue, and to hear more about how maintaining these unused buildings costs taxpayers money, check out this episode of The Fine Print.

ABC's Luis Martinez, Avery Miller, Robin Gradison, Betsy Klein, Eric Wray, Charlie Finamore, and Mark Banks contributed to this episode.