County Buildings Age, Not So Gracefully

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

The roofs of the Franconia Government Center and the Centreville Regional Library have multiple leaks. And aging electrical wires caused a fire that forced Joseph Willard Health Center on Old Lee Highway to close for three days. The heating and cooling systems at the Adult Detention Center are prone to breakdowns.

Many of Fairfax County's 170 or so public buildings are fraying and faltering, the result of too little money spent on replacement of aging systems and on items such as elevators, carpet and tile. Officials estimate that it will take $25 million a year to address the backlog of soggy roofs, asbestos-coated pipes and antiquated fire alarms.

But the county's budget straits, caused by the collapse of the housing market and the subprime mortgage sector, are compounding the difficulty of keeping up. The proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 sets aside $6.9 million for capital renewal, about half the money dedicated in the current budget.

"We are significantly behind in terms of the upkeep of our facilities," Edward L. Long Jr., deputy county executive, told the Board of Supervisors' budget committee last week.

Although the county's popular image is one of deep pockets and relentless growth, its government infrastructure is beginning to show its age. More than a third of county buildings (excluding schools) are more than 30 years old, and nearly 60 percent have passed their 20th year.

The Fairfax County Government Center, the sleek horseshoe of concrete and glass that was derided by some critics as a bloated Taj Mahal when it opened in 1992, is getting a new roof roughly the size of two football fields. The center's 15 elevators need to be overhauled, at a price of $4 million, along with three 900-ton chillers (part of the air-conditioning system) that are beyond their useful life.

One structure that wasn't built properly to begin with, the Herndon-Monroe parking garage, will need $5 million to strengthen inferior concrete and other flaws.

Another major concern for officials is the condition of the 41-year-old Massey Building, which houses police, fire and sheriff's officials. Long said that the building's electrical system is overloaded, and repair parts for aging heating and cooling systems often are unavailable.

He suggested that demolition of the building is likely, but Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) warned against a rush to tear down the tower, which housed county government in the 1970s and 1980s.

"This is a landmark building," Connolly said at the meeting. "There needs to be discussion."

The upkeep crunch is more urgent because of a building binge that started in the boom years early this decade. Since 2001, the county has added or expanded 69 facilities, including libraries in Great Falls and Burke Centre, police stations in Sully District and West Springfield, a shelter for homeless families, an adult day-care center, a newly renovated Jennings Judicial Center and a bigger Norman M. Cole Jr. Pollution Control Plant.

That pipeline isn't empty. Before 2012, 28 more construction, expansion or renovation projects are scheduled for completion, including the $122 million McConnell Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center on West Ox Road, a parking garage at the Burke VRE station, and the Wolf Trap Fire and Rescue Station.

Should the county have been more careful to invest in capital renewal as it was bringing facilities on line?

Connolly said that not enough money has been directed to upkeep, but he added that the county made a decision to devote funds during most of the 1990s to schools and public safety expansion.

"We were trying to play some catch-up," he said, explaining the explosive growth in county government construction. "At some point," he said, "we're going to have to rebalance."

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