Leaks, mold and other problems at Fulton County facilities have cost taxpayers about $437,000 in emergency repairs over the last year, and the bill is about to get ten times bigger.
Documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show the money paid for quick fixes to problems that threatened the health and safety of county employees and the public. The work included fixing a toilet that flooded a courtroom and offices, removing mold that sickened employees and repairing a leaky sewer drain beneath the floor of a county homeless shelter.
Critics say the county has deferred building maintenance and relied too much on emergency contracts to fix problems. They’d like to see Fulton adopt a long-term capital plan to address its building needs.
“When you defer maintenance or ignore problems, they just get worse and become more costly,” said County Commissioner Liz Hausmann. “You have to keep up the maintenance on buildings where you have employees serving the public. We’ve failed to do it.”
Fulton officials say they’re studying permanent fixes to some of the problems that have plagued county facilities. But the price tag will be steep.
The county plans to spend about $4.5 million on repairs this year, plus another $250,000 to study long-term fixes. Permanent solutions likely will cost millions more in coming years. And given the county’s budget problems and history of neglecting its facilities, it’s no sure thing the buildings will get fixed.
“I’m hopeful. I can’t say I’m confident,” said Greg Fann, executive director of the county employee’s union. “It’s all about money. They don’t really have the money to do that.”
County law generally requires contracts to be awarded on a competitive basis, with work usually going to the lowest bidder. But when public health or safety is threatened, the county manager can waive the usual requirements to get the work done as quickly as possible. In such cases, the law requires the Board of Commissioners to approve the contract – often after the work has been done.
The AJC examined 17 “emergency purchasing orders” commissioners have approved since Jan. 1, 2013. Each of the cases involved emergency repairs or other measures to address public health and safety. Among them:
• In October 2012 a toilet that wouldn’t stop running flooded a courtroom, a jury room, a bailiff’s office and a hallway at the Justice Center Tower downtown. The county found sand and other debris in a shutoff valve. A contractor pumped the flooded rooms, dehumidified walls and ceilings and replaced carpet. The cost: $30,963.
• In January 2013 Fulton spent $32,735 on mold remediation and air quality testing in the district attorney’s office in the county Government Center downtown. The office requested testing because employees reportedly were becoming sick. The contractor confirmed the presence of mold, which was immediately removed.
• At various times, Fulton also spent $10,051 to remove mold from an air handling unit at Charles L. Carnes Justice Center Building, $15,186 to remove mold in the Assembly Hall and FGTV studio at the Government Center and $43,050 on waterproofing and mold remediation at the Justice Center Tower.
Other repairs involved faulty water pipes at the Darnell Senior Multipurpose Center ($41,750), flooding caused by broken valve at the Auburn Avenue Research Library ($29,047) and a leaky sewer drain beneath the sleeping area of the Jefferson Place Homeless Shelter ($46,407).
Though such emergencies can be costly and disruptive, some buildings also have more persistent flooding problems.
“We’ve got trash cans in there now collecting water when there’s big rains,” said Probate Court Administrator James Brock, who works at the Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse downtown. “It’s somewhere on the roof of these buildings, and they can’t track it down.”
Problems also have plagued the Government Center, the county’s main administrative building, for years. Most recently, in January the county moved 20 purchasing department employees after mold was discovered in their office.
Critics have long complained Fulton has failed to properly maintain the Government Center. But the emergency purchasing orders show the maintenance and structural problems aren’t confined to that building.
Commission Chairman John Eaves acknowledged repairs to county facilities haven’t been a top priority in the face of tight budgets. It’s easier to spend precious money on public services than on repairs to facilities that many in the public will never see, he said.
“Usually, you don’t have a person from (the public) telling you to do it,” Eaves said.
The problems in the purchasing department – where employees had worn masks to protect themselves from inhaling mold – finally caught commissioners’ attention. The $4.5 million for repairs in this year’s budget will address leaks, mold and other problems at the Government Center. It also will fix problems at the Justice Center Tower, the Jefferson Place Shelter and several senior centers.
The $250,000 study will review capital needs at several county buildings. The most critical repairs at the Government Center alone are expected to cost more than $4 million.
County Manager Dwight Ferrell hopes to have a price tag and schedule for repairs to various buildings in time for the 2015 budget. But the work likely will take years.
“We are trying to transition from reactive maintenance to proactive,” he told commissioners at a recent meeting.
Eaves said he’d like to see an objective, prioritized project list of projects.
Commissioner Joan Garner said she’s also like to see a comprehensive solution to Fulton’s building problems.
“We expect the public to come to these buildings. We expect our employees to come to these buildings,” Garner said. “We need to make sure they’re safe.”
Fulton County emergency repairs
The Fulton County Board of Commissioners has approved more than $400,000 in emergency building repairs and other problems since Jan. 1, 2013. Here's a look at what the money paid for.
*Part of a larger contract for elevator maintenance