At first glance, the bungled move of a regional immigration and citizenship office to a difficult-to-find location in west Bloomington looks like the work of a distant, spendthrift bureaucrat with little knowledge of Minnesota and little regard for the thousands of people served by this office each year.
It’s hard to come up with another explanation for why the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that manages the government’s property portfolio, is violating its own policies by moving the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office from a location easily accessed by public transit to one that’s three miles away from the nearest bus stop. Instead of helping people who are following the rules to become legal citizens, the GSA has made it harder, since many of them are low-income and rely on public transportation.
The new location is the former Minnesota School of Business on Ensign Avenue. “Even Siri had trouble finding it,’’ said Star Tribune reporter Mark Brunswick, referring to his iPhone’s typically reliable personal assistant.
That the agency is spending more than $14.3 million on a 10-year-lease for the building, which was bought by private investors last September for $1.9 million, additionally flies in the face of common sense. There’s also little explanation for why it’s moving at all.
After the owners of the transit-friendly building housing the current regional office near the Mall of America lost the contract, they asked why and were told little other than that regulations now require 9-foot ceilings, according to Brunswick’s Feb. 10 Star Tribune story.
Deeper scrutiny, however, suggests this isn’t the work of one bureaucrat or department within the sprawling GSA. Instead, it’s business as usual.
High-profile questions about the GSA’s management decisions have dogged the agency for several years. A 2010 Las Vegas conference costing $822,000 — which included luxury suites, pricey sushi and a $75,000 “team-building exercise” — made the agency a still-cited example of government waste.
Less well-known but just as troubling is a 2011 Government Accountability Office report about the federal government’s “overreliance” on costly, long-term leases for buildings it would have been cheaper to build or purchase. The report concluded that federal property management is a governmentwide “high-risk issue.’’
The GSA’s decision to move a regional immigration office in Pennsylvania from central Pittsburgh to a suburb without robust public transit access also caused an understandable outcry from advocates.
It doesn’t appear that the GSA deliberately ignored the lack of transit access when it inked the deal for the new Minnesota location. In a January letter to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a regional administrator wrote that the agency discovered belatedly that a bus stop close to the building served only a Southwest Metro Transit line operating on a limited schedule and that the nearest stop with routine scheduled service was three miles away.
In other words, the agency made a mistake. While mistakes do happen, their discovery brings a responsibility to fix them. Yet GSA so far has given little indication that it’s willing to do so, declining to even provide information about provisions that should have been built into the leasing contract that would allow it to be voided.
If the agency won’t act, Minnesotans need to step in. The state’s immigration advocates and attorneys deserve credit for first raising red flags about the move. Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken also are on the case. The rest of the state’s congressional delegation needs to wield its influence, too.
Solutions that have been proposed to mitigate the poor planning are questionable. GSA and Metro Transit officials, for instance, have discussed using Metro Transit’s Dial-A-Ride service to fill the gap from the new office’s nearest bus stop to the building. But language issues and the need to schedule this service in advance undermine that plan. With the unpredictable and often slow pace of government offices, how are clients supposed to know when they’ll be finished?
Solutions that should be on the table include keeping the office in the current location, moving it to the transit-friendly central cities or to the newly renovated Bishop Henry Whipple federal building near the airport. Metro Transit should also take a harder look at establishing regular bus service to the new building.
Still, it’s the GSA’s responsibility to fix this mistake. It can take an important step forward in reputation repair by doing right in Minnesota.