When Is Surplus Property Surplus?

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A popular topic for those inside the state Capitol rooting around for spare change to help close the annual budget gap has been to get rid of surplus state property.

And yet, a state audit released today shows that it's not quite that simple, years after everyone said it should be.

Auditor Elaine Howle's new look at how surplus state property is handled only adds to the perception that sometimes one hand of government doesn't know what the other one is doing. The new examination is, in fact, a follow-up to the state auditor's 2001 report on how surplus property is -- or isn't -- shuffled off in exchange for badly needed cash.

Howle reports that many of the needed changes never happened. And given how even this month legislators have reignited the call for selling surplus property, a few tdibits from the audit are worth mentioning.

(If you don't want to read the full audit, try the appetizer summary here.)

Perhaps most enlightening is that the current system of various state agencies reporting surplus property to the Department of General Services doesn't work. The audit uses the Department of Fish and Game as an example, as DFG didn't respond to the annual inquiry by DGS of any possible surplus property. The report points out that DFG typically funnels such availabilities through its own process because, otherwise, the resulting profits go towards other government revenue needs.

"Thus," says the report, "the sale or exchange of Fish and Game property usually benefits Fish and Game programs, and the state cannot use such sales to make payments on [the current top priority of] the state’s economic recovery bonds."

That's not to say those DFG programs aren't worthy, but rather that this is why the existing state government-wide surplus property protocols may not turn up that much opportunity for extra cash.

Howle's audit recommends, as did her office's original 2001 audit, that either a new or existing state entity be given real power over the surplus property process... regardless of the agency involved.

To wit:

This entity would be responsible for establishing standards for the frequency and content of property reviews and land management plans, for monitoring agencies' compliance with the standards, and for scrutinizing agencies' property‑retention decisions.

The audit notes that some of the same recommendations for changes to the way surplus property is thought of were included in the infamous California Performance Review of 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger's much ballyhooed call for "blowing up the boxes" of state government.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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