Neglected Fulton building to cost taxpayers

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.

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, where 20 staffers were relocated last month. “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 about 1,000 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 would 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 10 palm trees that cost a combined $100,000.

The 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 shut up. 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.

In 2012, flooding from a busted pipe forced the tax assessor’s department which appraises property for tax purposes to vacate some offices. Chief Appraiser David Fitzgibbon said at the time the upheaval contributed to delayed data entry on property appeals that led to about 6,500 property owners getting overcharged on their tax bills.

Also in 2012, a roach infestation and other problems forced the county to shutter the government center’s cafeteria, which remains closed. A break room in the tax commissioner’s office recently closed for a time because of roaches. And employees sometimes see rats in their work areas.

“Every once in a while you hear somebody screaming,” said Janice Dudley, a financial services specialist for the tax commissioner.

This week, Fulton County commissioners agreed to spend $14,370 for emergency pest control at the government center and the nearby Justice Center Tower and Juvenile Justice Building.

County staff had asked commissioners in October to spend $961,000 to begin fixing problems at the government center, including the purchasing department. But commissioners instead elected to spend the money on a Fairburn Road bridge project.

Pitts said commissioners weren’t aware of the extent of the building’s problems.

“We were told some repairs were needed to the government center,” he said. “But had we been told we had employees walking around in masks and leaving because they were sick, we would have acted that day.”

Fulton Chairman John Eaves said the upkeep of buildings has not been a top priority in recent years. Plummeting real estate values have cost the county property tax revenue, and budgets have been tight. Eaves said commissioners have focused on maintaining public services.

“It’s a little difficult to fund a capital project that the typical citizen will not benefit from,” he said.

Now, with the purchasing department’s problems raising questions about employee health and safety, Fulton may not have a choice.

“We certainly have the monies earmarked to deal with the most pressing issues,” Eaves said. “I feel good about that.”

Last month commissioners approved a 2014 budget that includes about $1.3 million to begin addressing the government center’s needs. In October, Facilities and Transportation Director David Ricks told commissioners critical repairs to the building would cost more than $4 million.

County Manager Dwight Ferrell said last month Fulton will study the cost of long-term improvements this year, with an eye toward beginning work in 2015. The fixes likely will take years.

“It’s been a tough juggling act. Capital improvements have been deferred,” Eaves said. “Now we’ve got to take care of it.”

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