Tri-City Ledger -

By Joe Thomas
Ledger Editor 

Ceilings falling, more issues arrive at county courthouse

Commission chairman said emergency repairs first on the agenda


August 2, 2018

Joe Thomas

Judge Rice, right, addresses concerns with Chairman Wiggins

Engineers, contractors and an architect toured the Escambia County Courthouse Tuesday in Brewton to help county commissioners make a decision on what to do about ceilings caving in and water leaks throughout the building causing multiple issues that could become a health hazard.

Escambia County Commission Chairman Raymond Wiggins said the experts will get back to him shortly to recommend emergency repairs to the nearly 60-year old building.

"It's overwhelming how many issues we have throughout the building," Wiggins said. "We've identified all the areas and we will first address those of most concern."

As the commission scrambles to make the needed emergency repairs, Wiggins said they will continue to work on a long-term solution.

During the commission's administrative workshop on July 3, Wiggins said all options were on the table, including spending about $10 million for a total renovation of the courthouse or spending about $13 million to construct a new building.

He told commissioners at that meeting that asbestos and mold throughout the building complicate any renovations. Wiggins also said there were leaks throughout the building from the heating and cooling pipes as well as the roof.

In December, 2015, a heating pipe burst in the grand jury room on the top floor located above the circuit clerk's office which flooded most of the building. Part of the ceiling in Circuit Clerk John Robert Fountain's office fell in and has yet to be repaired.

DAG Architects of Florida did a complete walkthrough of the courthouse on June 6 and sent a letter to the commission dated June 13 outlining the damage found and estimated costs of repairs.

David C. Luttrell, assiciate principal with DAG, attended Tuesday's walkthrough and said the goal is to highlight and designate areas that needed immediate attention.

Within the past several weeks there have been other areas of the ceilings in the courthouse that have fallen, including one in the county commission chambers, the probate judge's office and in data processing. During the tour photos were taken of other areas where a portion of the ceiling that had fallen in the hallways on the top floor near Circuit Judge Bert Rice's office and outside the district attorney's office.

Luttrell told the group Tuesday they need to make sure it's safe for employees and any abatement of asbestos needed to be done in confinement to prevent airborne particles.

During the July 3 workshop Luttrell recommended a needs assessment study be done to determine the space needs of each office in the courthouse. He said the cost of the assessment would be between $20,000 and $25,000 and the information gathered would be beneficial whether the commission decided to renovate or build a new courthouse.

Wiggins said this week the needs assessment has been postponed until the immediate problems can be fixed.

Ceiling caves in at the probate judge's office

Judge Rice told the group that about 1,000 jurors come through the courthouse every year. As discussed at the July 3 meeting, Rice said the courthouse, built in 1959, was designed for one judge and one secretary and one district attorney and one secretary. He said the courthouse now houses three judges and multiple support staff.

Judge Rice, who serves as presiding circuit judge, said under Alabama law he could shut the judicial offices down but he doesn't want to do that. However, he said he is responsible for the health and welfare of the people.

"Most of the staff is paying attention to what's going on," Judge Rice said.

Wiggins noted when the ceiling fell in the probate office, it was cleaned up and treated as if it was hazardous, although there was no indication any asbestos or hazardous material fell. He said the third layer of the ceilings contains asbestos and none of that layer has been disturbed.

"We are going to take every precaution to make sure the employees and the public are safe," Wiggins said.


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