There is a dangerous infestation growing in the halls of the State House, just behind the wallpaper.
Last week the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) urged the public to take precautionary measures to avoid indoor air quality problems, especially mold, as they repair their storm-damaged homes and buildings following recent floods.
One group of people that need to pay attention to the ADPH’s warning is the group that funds them, the Alabama Legislature. In 2009 The Montgomery Advertiser released a eye-opening look at problems in the State House. Mold, leaks and flooding are perennial problems in “the People’s House,” as House Speaker Mac McCutcheon often refers to the building. The report recounted stories of State employees who work in the building year round (as opposed to legislators that are typically only at the State House three days per week for just a few months each year) requiring medical care up to and including surgeries to deal with the effects of the mold.
After 10 years not much has changed. Today in the Alabama State House barrels and buckets are used to catch water from leaking pipes and the building’s basement usually floods at least once each year. With all the humidity in the building, mold comes and goes in the State House, usually as it is painted over and later re-forms.
When The Montgomery Independent went to investigate the current state of the building it is clear there is still a mold problem in the building. In places the wallpaper is peeling back and behind it is black layer of mold.
Whose responsibility is it?
The Alabama Legislature has a permanent committee called the Legislative Council. It consists of the Lieutenant Governor and legislators including the House and Senate leadership, the Majority and Minority Leaders of each house, chairmen of various other permanent committees and about a dozen members elected by the Legislature. Among the duties of the Legislative Council is maintenance responsibility of the building and grounds of the State House.
“The problem you have got is that legislators do not want to be seen spending money on themselves. They do not want that attitude in the minds of voters,” said Sen. Cam Ward, who is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and by virtue of that position also a member of the Legislative Council.
While the Legislative Council is the body most immediately responsible for the condition of the building and grounds they rely in part on the guidance and advice of Jeff Woodard and Pat Harris, Clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives and Secretary of the Alabama Senate respectively. But ultimately any meaningful solution to the problem is going to be costly and require the approval of the entire Legislature.
Short term solutions
Woodard, Clerk of the Alabama House, oversees many of the administrative responsibilities including those with the House staff. Woodard says the maintenance staff at the State House is responsive when a problem with the mold crops up, but due to a lack of funds they can only remediate the mold problem in stages. Woodard explained that the problem with mold is that if you do not get it all, you are likely to continue having problems.
“About six years ago we got a quote to remediate the mold in the entire building and the cost was around $2 million, which we did not have,” Woodard says. The availability of capital improvement funds has not gotten any better. Woodard says that the funds for capital improvements available to the Legislature have essentially been spent down to zero, outside of the roughly $1 million it takes to operate the building each year, and those funds have not been replenished by the legislature during normal appropriations in many years, according to Woodard. Unlike the Executive Branch which maintains buildings across the State, the Legislative Branch’s only major building to maintain is the State House, which houses the Alabama House of Representatives, Alabama Senate and the Legislative Reference Service.
In 2009, Woodard’s predecessor Greg Pappas called the State House a “sick building.” This is not just dramatic language, as the term “sick building” is a legal term used in the process of condemning a building. Woodard agrees that the building is in bad shape, but also has practical concerns about making a declaration to condemn the building without having somewhere to relocate the more than 100,000 square feet of office and public meeting space.
“If you declare it a sick building and condemn it then where are you going to put all these people?” Woodard asked.
Long term solutions
Since mold is but one of several problems with the building, the subject is perennially discussed by long serving legislators, legislative staff and the occasional pundit, of building a new State House building or at the very least leasing a new building.
“The way to fix this long term is to have David Bronner build a new building and then the State can lease it,” says Sen. Cam Ward. Ward says the most obvious location is the current parking lot adjacent to the State House. Retirement Systems of Alabama, of which Bronner is CEO, owns a number of buildings in downtown Montgomery, some of which are leased by government agencies.
“I think the best way to solve this is to talk to the RSA. That would be a tremendous investment for them and they would have a lifelong tenant in there,” says Patrick Harris, Secretary of the Alabama Senate. Harris also said there is a wide gulf between legislators’ recognition of the problem and the political will to solve the problem.
“The practical end of it is one thing, the political end of it is another thing. You can build those green topped (RSA) buildings, which are state-of-the-art, beautiful and everybody talks about how functional they are and what a nice place they are to have an office. But the minute you talk about the (State House); which is really the people’s house and where the public often sees their government at work, it is a different story. Ever since Fob James claimed we had moved into the Taj Mahal, people just go crazy about it. It is similar with the roads in Alabama. You know when I’m driving down the highway and everybody agrees, ‘This highway is in terrible shape.’ But then you say, ‘We need a gas tax to fix it.’ People just don’t want to take that step,” Harris said.
Just because there are serious problems to the health of the employees in the State House does not mean the Alabama Legislature has not been spending money to improve the building. Last year, in order to solve a problem with overheating computer equipment the State House’s computer mainframe and associated equipment was moved from the eighth (top) floor to the first floor. While the first floor has been known to flood in the past Woodard says that problem has been mitigated through improvements on the exterior of the building. At any rate he adds the computers are on the opposite side of the first floor away from the once flood-prone area. This opened the door to renovate the 8th floor at a cost of approximately $200,000, according to Harris. Those improvements included building a new Senate Finance and Taxation Committee meeting room (this committee is arguably the most high profile and highly attended committees in the Alabama Senate), additional office space, and an overflow room for the public to view legislative proceedings via a remote monitor.
Of course despite all of these improvements the reality is that in time, mold will gather on and behind the walls and furnishings on the 8th floor just as it does on the seven floors and basement beneath.
“The bottom line is we are still putting lipstick on a pig, it’s just a prettier shade,” Harris said.
Gas tax relief?
Could any of the funds raised through a potential gas tax increase fund improvements at the State House? Ordinarily oil and gasoline tax revenue is supposed to be spent only on building and maintaining roads and bridges, even though the gas tax bill as it will be introduced by Rep. Bill Poole will include provisions for funding an expansion of the Port of Mobile and provide grants to construct electric vehicle charging facilities. It is not clear if some funds from the proposed gas tax could be used to fund improvements or at least to act as a revenue stream to back up bond issues to improve the state of the State House. It will depend on how the bill looks after the amendments are finished. But in both cases the problem seems obvious even as the solution, to some, seems untenable.