Courthouse Grime, Rats now an annual rally point
[caption id="attachment_21679" align="alignleft" width="300"] AFSCME Local 3674 President Pat Kelly: "Everybody who's sick, raise their hands."[/caption] Circuit court workers staged their annual rally-for-a-new-building today on the Calvert Street island between the two courthouse buildings. The signs told most of the story: "My work area is a restroom for mice," was one. "We need a mayor who will listen and take action" another. Backstory: many decades ago the federal government gave the building we now call Courthouse East," at 111 N. Calvert, to the city with the proviso that the city maintain it. It's a beautiful building, gilded and ornate. But if you've been in it you know there's much left undone. Clerk Frank Conaway has complained about this for a decade or so, floating plans and dreams for a new courthouse, to no avail. "It was much better when city employees did the work" five or six years ago, he says. Perhaps, though some were also stealing substantial amounts of copper from the air conditioning system. These days, Conaway says, the work is handled by a contractor that is hired by the city's Department of General Services. "They're limited in what they can do," says Paul Ricciuti, a 37-year employee at the register of wills, room 338. He says the place is unbearably hot these days, the air conditioner registers blocked by foam. Diane Dabbs, a five year employee, says her daughter has an allergic reaction every time she goes into the building. The building has lead paint, asbestos, a fair amount of grime, and rodents. Conaway says his employees now have to clean their own offices each morning because of the dust that falls from the ceiling when they're away each night. "Most of them are sick," Pat Kelly, President of AFSCME Local 3674, which represents the courthouse workers, said as the cameras whirred and clicked. "Everybody who's sick, raise their hands." In the crowd of 100 or so, maybe two-thirds of the hands shot up. Conaway, a consummate politician, took the mic and recounted the troubles. At one point he whipped out a rubber rat and tossed it in the crowd of his workers, to what sounded like genuine squeals of alarm. Attorney General Doug Gansler, stumping for the Democratic nomination for governor, pledged fealty to Conaway's cause. "Don't forget to vote," he told the crowd. I called the Department of General Services and got Steve Sharkey to explain why this problem seems intractable. Bottom line: the courthouse building is not in any worse condition than any other city building, he says. The cleaning contract—outsourced about nine years ago, he says—is handled by a company called ABM. (So that was nothing to do with the copper thefts, which came after). General maintenance is done in-house but if the job is too big, the supervisor in charge of it will call for back-up in the form of an outside, on-call contractor. Jobs that are bigger still "go to our capital budget," Sharkey says, adding that this has covered the cost of new elevators last year and will handle a beam repair in the basement this coming year, among other things. "We make sure critical needs are being met," Sharkey says. "We're doing all we can to make sure every city building is safe."