Prince William County's $10 million courthouse, open only six months, has been plagued with problems that include a burst water pipe that flooded courtrooms, an inadequate heating system that forces some judges to wear coats under their judicial robes, and judges' benches that are built so high that judges say they cannot see over them unless they stand up.
According to several members of the county staff, the latest list of complaints about the new building presented to general services manager Dean BeLar was 13 pages long. The complaints included doors that open in the wrong direction, electric receptacles raised in the floor that employes have said were dangerous, and doors with locks on the wrong side.
Shortcomings in the building's heating and cooling system, which the county has been unable to identify so far, have forced judges, court clerks and employes who work in the building's west wing to wear coats or sweaters. Said District Court Judge Frank Hoss, "The baseboard heaters are cold to the touch. I have an all-electric house and I'm used to being cold. But not like this. It's too cold for comfort."
Circuit Court Judge Selwin Smith said that he wears a coat and a sweater under his judicial robes. "Our offices are frigid," he said. "It gets so cold in one office you can't even see the mercury on the thermometer."
In the east wing of the building, judges and clerks complain it is often so hot -- sometimes the mercury there rises above 80 degrees even in the winter -- that walking from one wing to the other is a "health hazard." Most employes in the west wing are using county-purchased space heaters but many say they are still wearing coats, hats and long underwear in the office.
"Some employes have doctors' certificates saying they shouldn't be working in these conditions," said Smith. The judge said he attributed his own head cold to conditions in the buliding. "One day last week I was actually feeling comfortable in my courtroom when the air conditioning came on," he said. "My feet were freezing."
An official of L.F. Jennings Inc., contractor for the courthouse, said last week that the heating subcontractor is "checking out" the problem. "It is our responsibility to see why it's not working," said Vice President Stanley Reed.
The latest problem in the building, which experienced a frozen boiler and a sprinkler system set off by vandals last winter before the building opened, occurred when a plumber did not tighten a joint connector properly after adjusting the building's water pressure on Dec. 3, the staff said. According to the building's crew manager, Brenda Friend, a crew member who stayed late that night heard the water running out of a two-inch pipe behind a locked door in an empty prisoner holding cell.
Courtrooms on two of the three floors filled with ankle-deep water before the key to the door could be found and the joint tightened. Nearly a dozen ceiling panels in the building had fallen from the pressure.
Friend and some of her maintenance crew worked through the night along with workers from a local clean-up firm. All affected courtrooms were ready for the morning session at 9 a.m.
But Brentsville Supervisor Joseph Reading, when he reported the incident to the board and a visibly surprised County Executive Robert Noe two weeks ago, said he was angry that the county had received a cleaning bill for more than $15,000. Reading said he believes the plumbing subcontractor should pay the bill. Reading, who is in the building supply business, also cited the possibility of future problems caused by water damage that the county would have to pay for when the warranty on the building runs out in June.
Several judges are upset over the height of their new judicial benches. The benches are so high that even the tallest of them finds it difficult to get a good look at the witnesses, plaintiffs or attorneys unless they or the judges stand up, said Hoss. "I'm 6-foot-4 and I could barely see the witness from the chin up," he said. "Other judges tell me they can see their witnesses only from the eyeballs up." The purpose of the courthouse is to hold trials and give judges an opportunity to see and observe witnesses, Hoss said. "You could solve this problem with a saw," he said.
Noe told the board two weeks ago that he will discuss the $15,000 water damage bill with the contractor and inform the board of the resolution. So far there has been no response, a county spokesman said.
Because many of the courthouse's problems are "design deficiencies," deputy County Attorney John Barnett said, the architect, L. B. C. & W. Inc., has been requested to correct them, including the judges' benches, which could cost as much as $100,000 to redesign and rebuild, he said. "Those are nice wooden structures, probably oak. We need a fine craftsman to do the work, not a saw and some putty."
"Some of us are still wearing boots and gloves in the office," said District Court clerk Linda Gattis. "Sometimes I wish we were back in the old courthouse. We didn't have carpeting there but at least we were warm."