Study On SSA Building Lacks Transparency

BY NATALIA KOZIKOWSKA
Staff Writer

Last week, the Queens Tribune first reported that the Social Security Administration building in Jamaica was being underutilized, with six of its 11 floors being used for the storage of filing cabinets.

Just 25 years after the $92 million custom-designed headquarters was unveiled, it has been revealed that because the SSA’s budget has been significantly reduced, hundreds of employees have been moved out. A source close to the situation has even described the building as a “museum of 1950s filing cabinets.”

Many of the pages included in a GSA study about the Social Security Administration building in Jamaica were heavily redacted. Photo by Natalia Kozikowska

Many of the pages included in a GSA study about the Social Security Administration building in Jamaica were heavily redacted. Photo by Natalia Kozikowska

Concerned about what this meant for economic growth in Jamaica, in 2012, Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), along with reps from the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, requested the General Services Administration conduct a utilization study.

Almost one year after the original request, Meeks’ office finally received the GSA report. But in addition to his disappointment with the lengthy wait, the Congressman said he is frustrated with the study’s “alarming” lack of transparency.

The report, which has also been obtained by the Tribune, is missing more than 70 pages and of the few pages available for review, significant portions have been withheld.

“Everything is redacted. The report doesn’t mean anything to me, because it doesn’t say anything,” Meeks said. “It seems as though they are acting and moving with a code of secrecy and that befuddles me and upsets me.”

According to the report’s cover letter, authored by Denise Pease, regional administrator at the GSA, information from the study was withheld for security reasons.

“I would like to apologize for the delay in responding to your inquiry, however, since OAS is a pre-decisional document, it was necessary to ensure that sensitive information was redacted from the OAS prior to sharing it,” Pease wrote. “Please be advised that information has been redacted from pages 1-25 of the OAS. Additionally, pages 25-103 have been withheld entirely due to the sensitivity contained within.”

According to the report, there are currently 1,303 employees in the building – about 1,400 employees less than when the headquarters first opened in 1989. The study also reveals that 805,111-square-feet of the building’s 923,200-square-feet of space were deemed “rentable.”

But when weighing in on the GSA’s lack of transparency, Meeks said he questions the validity of those figures.

“Because of the lack of transparency, there could be even fewer employees than that,” he said. “I have to speculate as to anything they say is accurate because they have been secretive and not clear and transparent.”

The report, which suggests that the building is being used at just over 40 percent, has determined that there are “three approaches to address the need for improved utilization.” The options are to convert the facility into a multi-tenanted building, relocate SSA to larger or smaller spaces, possibly moving workers out of the SSA offices in the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan to the Jamaica headquarters, or maintain status quo with the SSA to remain in the headquarters.

Although the study explores the three possibilities, all of the design options have been redacted and no possible tenant is listed in the open report. Meeks said he requested the full document, but noted that his request was denied for similar “confidentiality reasons.”

“Enough time has gone by for a decision to be made about the utilization of the building,” Meeks said. “It’s time for the GSA to come to the public and say additional tenants will be looked into, or they don’t have the money to retrofit the facility, and are looking for a buyer so they can rent the space they need.”

Reach Natalia Kozikowska at (718)357-7400 Ext. 123 or nkozikowska@queenspress.com.