AUSTIN (KXAN) — The downtown Municipal Court is decrepit, riddled with asbestos and at the brink of a “disaster” that could shut the building down on any given day, according to emails obtained by KXAN and statements from court administrators.
One recent potential disaster, which turned out to be a false alarm, struck in late November. City maintenance workers dislodged ceiling tiles and sent possible asbestos-containing debris into a work space, according to city correspondence. The court at 700 E. 7th St. was shut down for a day on Nov. 29. Air tests later came back negative, but the event highlighted serious deficiencies in the aging building.
“Past city management put this on a back-burner,” said Presiding Municipal Court Judge Sherry Statman at a Dec. 8 Austin Judicial Committee meeting. “The Titanic is sinking … we don’t have a lifeboat.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) representing City of Austin employees, says its heard from numerous city employees about the incident.
“Even though the city was going in there, trying to say ‘We’ve tested, everything’s fine’ — well, they’re not buying it. And, we’re not buying it either. We know it’s not fine. They need to be removed from the building,” said Carol Guthrie, with the union. “They’re just extremely concerned, and the way the city has handled the asbestos in the other areas has not been very forthcoming.”
Any shutdown could delay scheduled trials, curtail court clerk operations and lock out citizens trying to make payments. In the day the court was closed for air testing, there were about 75 defendants set for trial, according to city emails.
Municipal Court Clerk Mary Jane Grubb says she’s concerned for the health of anyone who sets foot in the building at this point, which is about 600 people a day.
“It could be anyone. It’s from staff to the defendants who come in and citizens and many people come in with their families, their parents, small children,” she said. “It’s an irresponsible decision to expect citizens, including defendants, to come into contact with a building we cannot guarantee is safe.”
City spokesperson David Green said the city manages the asbestos with periodic surveys, monitoring, abatement and a work request system that controls disturbances of building materials. The city “errs on the side of caution and tests any building materials before disturbing it if there is any question or ambiguity,” he added.
In a draft letter written by Statman on Dec. 4, she explains the events preceding the November court closure.
Building Services Department workers investigated a water leak in the first floor ceiling. The workers lifted some ceiling tiles, which caused a “great deal of dust, dead roaches and other materials to fall including on desks, carpet and employees.” Workers later went into the ceiling in four other places, she said.
“Upon questioning by staff, [building services] later admitted that they were not supposed to go up there but the file on municipal court failed to note the prohibition,” Statman wrote in the draft letter. “When this was discovered, the potential exposure was downplayed greatly but [Building Services] could not definitively say that asbestos was not disturbed.”
A 2012 municipal court building survey shows asbestos is present throughout the building, with some materials containing as much as 50 percent asbestos. The building has 7,500 square feet of spray-applied fireproofing that contains 30 to 50 percent asbestos. There’s also 2,000 linear feet of water line and fitting insulation with as much as 50 percent asbestos in it, according to the survey.
Asbestos makes renovations more difficult, time consuming and expensive. By state law, only properly licensed individuals can work on materials that contain asbestos. The city typically contracts with outside companies to handle such work.
Outside of municipal court, an ongoing KXAN investigation has revealed several potential asbestos exposures in other city department buildings over the past two years. Those exposures could have impacted more than 150 workers.
In addition to asbestos issues, the Municipal Court’s sewer line is nearing collapse, according to emails.
A Building Services manager said a large portion of the building’s sewer line was “broken up and/or underwater,” according to an email KXAN obtained.
“This means you will need a total sewer line replacement – the line is disintegrated,” the manager wrote in November. “The problem with this if the line collapses … it could shut the courts down for some time.”
Building Services doesn’t currently have funds to rebuild the sewer line, which could cost $100,000. The renovation may have to wait to be budgeted in fiscal year 2019, the manager said.
“This has me freaked out on many levels. So. Many. Levels. We’ve got to notify the Judicial Committee and the Mayor, if not the whole council. The report makes it sound like someone could flush a paper towel this afternoon and we’re CLOSED,” Judge Statman said in an email. “And where is that contingency plan?”
Guthrie called the lack of action “shameful.”
“I feel like I’m back in the 1950s or something where you don’t have anything in place to protect workers. And, the unfortunate part is we do have things in place,” she told KXAN. “But, nobody wants to adhere to any of those things. And, they don’t want to be held accountable for it.”
Council Member Leslie Pool said she is pushing for improvements and changes. The city could use an existing city building to relocate the municipal court during repair and rehab.
The MetCenter is a location that’s being seriously considered, where the city housed Hurricane Harvey evacuees. The industrial park is located off Metropolis Dr., near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“I am urging the Council to take action, and it appears the Judicial Committee that I sit on is taking concerns seriously,” Pool said.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan chairs the city’s Judicial Committee and said he’s “appalled” at the conditions of the court.
“Even if you accept that the asbestos level isn’t dangerous, even if you do, it is still an unstable environment for us to have justice in this town,” he said. “We are going to address it. I’ve made it very clear to staff my temperature is going to rise exponentially if this thing isn’t addressed and we don’t have a clear plan forward in February.”
Green said the city is evaluating short-term relocation options and possibly transferring the court to a new permanent location. City staff is working to break down the cost of asbestos abatement and relocating downtown Municipal Court operations while that work is done within the next 6 to 8 months.
“I am straight up begging you, please don’t let this can get kicked down the road and do not let anybody minimize this,” Statman told council members at the Judicial Committee meeting.