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State of the State House: Officials consider what to do with building in disrepair

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Alabama State House

Alabama State House in Montgomery. (Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)

When replacement parts are needed for the Alabama State House’s electrical system, some have to be “scavenged” because the system is so old that new parts are no longer available.

Meanwhile, the HVAC system has outlived its intended lifespan and is contributing to mold issues in the nearly 60-year-old, eight-floor building, according to a recent facility condition assessment by a Georgia-based engineering firm.

The report has renewed discussions about the health and safety conditions of the building and the need for a new building, or at least significant renovations. The report and springtime presentation to the Legislative Council, a panel of about 20 lawmakers, outlined some concerning conditions in the building and about $51 million in renewal costs needed in the next 10 years.

Those repairs would fix many of the systemic problems — HVAC, electrical and roofing — but wouldn’t address other issues, like access and space, in a building that was never intended to be a permanent meeting place for the Legislature and the public.

The bottom line is that lawmakers need to act on the condition of the State House and the costs will be significant, Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday. Gaston is chair of the Legislative Council, which owns the State House.

“For cost effectiveness and to serve the public, we need a new building,” Gaston said. He also said that’s a hard sell.

“I think every member of the Legislature wants to make sure dollars that are collected to be spent in the best possible way to serve the public,” Gaston said. “…Most people do not go to the State House. And it’s not just a hard sell to the public, it would be a hard sell to the Legislature because of the cost involved. Nobody wants to spend money that really needs to be spent on serving the needs of mental health or schools. You don’t want to do that as long as we’re not happy with pupil-teacher ratios, as one example. So, yeah, it’s a hard sell.”

He also said enough may be done to repair the building so that it’s serviceable.

“But the cost of that is really concerning too,” Gaston said.

Gaston said a Legislative Council meeting will be held soon to discuss “what needs to be done and how to pay for it.”

The possibility of a new State House has been discussed for more than a decade and is a political hot potato for lawmakers under any circumstances. But now they’re still stung from early 2020 when leadership listed $200 million for a new State House as a possible use for CARES Act money, along with broadband expansion and improved telemedicine technology.

Alabama Daily News first reported the inclusion of a new State House on a “wish list” and Gov. Kay Ivey criticized lawmakers for proposed spending unrelated to the pandemic. There was immediate backlash, most of it landing at Sen. Del Marsh’s feet. He later defended the need for a new State House but said CARES Act money wouldn’t be used. Later, federal guidance also made a new building for the Legislature an unlikely option for the round of money that had to be spent last year.

That may not be the case with the latest round of stimulus money from Congress. Of the $2.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that the Legislature must appropriate, $192 must go to state capital projects and they don’t have to be pandemic-related. For example, some lawmakers have proposed spending some of the funds to build new prisons.

The state of the State House

The Legislative Council pays the Alabama Department of Finance to maintain the State House, along with other buildings in the Capitol complex. The engineering firm assessed those other buildings as well but said the State House has the most improvement needs at the highest cost.

Jerry Watkins, a senior project manager for Intelligent Systems and Engineering Services, the company that did the report, told the council in March that about 18 percent of nearly $51 million in renewal cost can be planned for in coming years. But about 69 percent of the needs were deferred renewals, things that have exceeded their “economically feasible life” and fixes are past due.

“This means we’re in catch-up mode, we’re behind the eight ball on this building,” Watkins said. “It doesn’t mean that stuff hasn’t been done that should have been done. It usually means the building has been underfunded for some time and the cost and money spent in the building have had to be prioritized in some other areas.

“And it usually means maintenance teams have been doing a great job of even keeping the building running … that’s certainly what we found in this instance.”

Watkins said the highest priority repairs involve the HVAC and electrical systems. The electrical system is original and new replacement parts can’t be bought, but have to be found used. The heating and cooling systems’ deficiencies cause the mold problems sometimes found in the building, Watkins said.

He also noted “significant issues” with restroom plumbing.

“We’re at a critical time, we need to make some decisions going forward,” he said.

During the March meeting, Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, asked if it would be more economical and efficient for the state to renovate the building or build a new one.

“That’s a great question and I’m going to dance around it,” Watkins said.

He said a new building with the limestone facade that fits the rest of the capital complex “would be very expensive construction these days.”

Watkins noted that the University of Alabama and Auburn University have completely renovated existing buildings while keeping their original facades.

State leaders would also have to decide whether the current configuration of the building and meeting spaces are adequate.

Council member Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said renovations are his preferred option over spending more on a new building.

“With today’s construction costs being what they are, we’ve got more important places to spend our money,” Orr said. “If we can address and solve the mold and other issues with the building for that expenditure over time.”

He also said that the building has enough square footage, but the configuration of rooms could be improved.

Orr said for the sake of the hundreds of state employees who work in the State House year round, improvements must be made.

“We don’t have a choice, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and appropriate the money to make the necessary fixes,” he said.

Council member Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said there were roof leaks in the building recently during a rain. Meanwhile, he said there isn’t space in the building for school groups or other spectators to meet and gather. Elevator lobbies and hallways around the building are often crowded, causing security concerns.

He said it’s likely time for a new building.

“We need a facility that can provide the service people deserve,” Smitherman said.

The report also noted a variety of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance issues, including restroom access on some floors of the building and no wheelchair access to some meeting rooms that should be open to the public. Door hardware is also not ADA-compliant.

The building has eight elevators and no detailed assessment was performed. “However, based on identified renovation dates, observed condition, and statistical lifecycle models, the elevators will be due for a modernization overhaul within the year,” the report said.

The report is based on March 2020 inspections of the building.

Access issues

Clerk of the House Jeff Woodard on Tuesday said that besides mold issues, public access to the State House has always been a concern of his.

“Committee rooms are grossly inadequate,” Woodard said. “We have people who drive in from Huntsville, Mobile, Dothan, Florence — from all corners of the state, they drive here for a public hearing and then find out they can’t get in because the room is already filled up.

“… You don’t want to shut the people out of the process simply because your facility is inadequate.”

Improvements have been made in recent years, including a 200-person committee room, the largest in the building, on the second floor, and a recently remodeled committee room on the eighth floor.

Still, there are many meeting spaces where people are turned away because the rooms don’t hold more than 50 or so people.

Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris said the report highlighted significant issues with the building’s infrastructure.

“You’re talking about an aged building, you’re talking about public access to that building, which was especially highlighted in the recent pandemic,” Harris said. Social distancing among the public during COVID-19 was nearly impossible in the building. While it was never officially closed, its access was severely limited. Several committee meeting rooms were wired to allow for live streaming of meetings, but connectivity was often a problem as was the building’s WiFi.

Harris noted that several state agencies in Montgomery are housed in buildings, some of them owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, that are more functional for the visiting public than the State House.

“You have to have the right facilities to provide for access and security,” he said.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, is chairman of the Senate General Fund budget committee and on the council. He said the report showed that no matter how much money is put into the existing building, it will be hard to bring it up to 21st century standards. He said there haven’t been discussions about what’s next.

“At this point, there’s just not been the political motivation to look for a different answer other than patching the building,” Albritton said.

He said more information may be needed.

In the spring, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, and Rep. Craig Lipscomb, R-Rainbow City, sponsored a resolution to create a committee to study the conditions of the State House and make recommendations to the Legislature. That resolution cleared the House but died in the Senate.

The resolution noted that the building, constructed in 1963, was originally office space for the highway department and lawmakers’ time in it was supposed to be temporary. They moved into it in the early 80s while the Capitol underwent renovations.

Gaston was a lawmaker then.

“We got our own offices for the first time,” he said. Prior to that, the Mobile delegation had a small area it shared, but lawmakers didn’t have anywhere to meet with constituents or groups.

In his position, Harris has traveled to about every state capitol and state house in the country.

“These are not just offices,” he said. They’re meant to be learning places for people, from elementary to college students, to watch the government in action.

“(A State House) is something you build for the people, not the (officials) in it now,” Harris said.