With its four-story atrium, marble staircase and palm trees, the Fulton County Government Center in downtown Atlanta was dubbed the “Taj Mahal” when it opened in 1990.
But it’s far from the showcase county officials envisioned. For years it has been a leaky, moldy, rodent-infested mess, and many of its occupants fear for their health and safety. And Fulton taxpayers may soon pay millions of dollars to fix the problems.
The Fulton Board of Commissioners included about $1.3 million for initial repairs to the building in its 2014 budget, plus another $250,000 to study long-term solutions. Critical repairs to the building could cost more than $4 million.
In the meantime, rats and roaches skitter about. Rainwater stains the ceilings and carpets of some offices. And in others — most recently the purchasing department — leaks and mold have driven away workers.
“Employees were walking around with masks on,” said County Commissioner Robb Pitts, who toured the purchasing department. “It reminded me of a scene from some Third World country.”
That’s not the image Fulton officials were shooting for when they spent $70 million to build the government center.
The 10-story Pryor Street building houses Fulton’s main administrative offices and hundreds of employees. It’s part of a stretch of government buildings downtown that includes the state Capitol, Atlanta City Hall and the Richard B. Russell Federal Building.
When it was dedicated 24 years ago, then-commission Chairman Michael Lomax said the government center to become a landmark that would survive well into the next century.
Instead, it became an object of scorn for critics of government waste. They cited its $545,000 marble sculpture and staircase, its $148,000 clock tower and its $100,000 palm trees.
The 10 palm trees became symbols of government waste, and critics wore palm-shaped lapel pins in protest. Former commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis made an issue of the trees when he ran for office and had them chopped down when he won. County officials said the trees cost about $8,200 a year to maintain but only $5,000 to remove.
Lomax and Skandalakis did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the building’s luxurious features, county officials — constrained by budgets buffeted by tumbling property tax revenue — haven’t spent the money necessary for its upkeep, and it has become a maintenance nightmare.
The atrium — impressive on sunny days — leaks when it rains, turning the floor into an obstacle course of yellow “caution” signs and mats that sop up puddles. In the tax commissioner’s office, ceilings and carpets are water-stained and a hose drains fluid from one ceiling leak into a bucket.
Tales of problems at the government center have been around since at least 2005. Greg Fann, executive director of the county employees’ union, said Fulton officials have neglected maintenance on the building and now will pay the price.
“If you don’t make changing the oil in your car a priority, pretty soon it will catch up with you,” Fann said.
Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand estimated that since 2005 he has lost a third of his office space at the government center to leaks and mold. The vacant offices are simply shuttered. Some are used for storage. Others are full of moldering ceiling tiles and abandoned office furniture.
The problem has affected customers who come to Ferdinand’s department for tax bills, car tags and other concerns. The tax commissioner has one-stop shopping for many services at offices around the county. But at the government center, with employees now scattered, customers sometimes have to roam from office to office.
“You take half an hour at lunchtime and try to get something resolved, you can’t do that very easily,” Ferdinand said.