Aging facility draws concern

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 24, 2008

JACKSON—From the outside the Northampton County Courthouse stands as a pristine example of the rich history in the area.

However, inside the 150-year-old structure is another story.

Moisture damage and mold can be seen in the corners of rooms in the courthouse, employees that work on the third floor often deal with bats and there are general security concerns about the facility.

Though these problems were highlighted first at the Rural Courts Commission in February and more recently at the Northampton County Board of Commissioners on Monday, many employees say the battle with these problems has been ongoing for the county.

As for solutions to the existing problems, some favor constructing a new facility while others support continuing maintenance on the current one, while planning long-term for a new facility.

Working among bats, mold and spores

At their regular Monday meeting, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners heard concerns from judicial officials, including Ford Heath, a Safety and Health Consultant with the Administration Office of North Carolina Courts and Chief District 6B Judge Alfred Kwasikpui.

Judge Kwasikpui spoke to the commissioners about experiences with bats on the third floor, which houses Kwasikpui’s office, Adult Probation Services, Juvenile Services and Guardian Ad Litem.

“I don’t know the extent of the infestation,” said Kwasikpui, noting he is not in that office everyday as he serves other counties as well. “I wanted to apprise you of the situation and ask you for your assistance.”

Kwasikpui stated there had been several incidents with bats on the third floor; including bats flying down the hall. He said bats have the ability to bite and are often known to carry rabies and other diseases.

Heath described the courthouse as a “huge liability to the county.”

“This problem is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Heath, who covers all 100 counties in the state.

He recommended Trutech Incorporated, who are wildlife and animal removal specialists based in Marietta, Ga. He also presented a nearly $20,000 proposal from Trutech that would remove the bats, prevent bats from returning to the site, remove guano (bat feces) from the attic and treat for parasites. The work would also include a three year guarantee.

Later, in a tour of the facility, Northampton County Clerk of Court Venus Michelle Spruill pointed out problem spots to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald within the circa-1858 building.

In the jury room on the second floor as well as in other rooms throughout the building, moisture absorbed by the brick facade building has bubbled through, damaging the plaster on the walls. In the corner of Spruill’s office on the first floor, the moisture has caused black mold to grow.

In Judge Gay’s Library, located on the second floor, an unknown brown substance can be seen running down the walls.

“I would like to have an air quality test done to see what we are breathing,” said Spruill.

She said there are at least two employees who have reported allergies they did not have before working at the courthouse, though those employees’ aliments have not been directly correlated to the problems in the facility.

And then there are the bats, most prevalent on the third floor, but have also made their presence known in other areas of the building.

Spruill recalled a close call with a bat where an attorney’s young son nearly picked up a screeching bat off the floor, only to be stopped in time by another adult. The incident occurred on the first floor of the courthouse.

On the third floor, employees spoke about their experiences with bats.

Judy Jones with Guardian Ad Litem said she has seen bats hanging over the window sill, flying in the hallways and heard them scratching in the ceiling.

Trial Courts Coordinator Shelia Eley, who works in Judge Kwasikpui’s office, has had her fair share of experiences with the winged creatures as well.

“We understand this is not an easy problem to fix, but the bats bother us, especially when they are in flight,” said Eley. “The amount of bats has increased; they are getting used to us.”

Probation Officer Tony Evans has seen the bats and smelled them as well.

“I can’t describe the smell,” he said. “It’s something like I have never smelled before.”

According to Spruill, 10 dead bats were found in a small, dark entrance to the attic last week. She also noted employees have been informed when a live bat is found, the Health Department needs to be contacted so the animal can be tested.

“Bats can carry many diseases, and even their feces can cause great damage to the structure of a building,” she said. “It’s not just bad for humans, but the structure of a building.”

Spruill said she was concerned about the bats being out in the daytime as they tend to be nocturnal animals.

When asked twice by the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald how live bats are removed, Spruill stated: “We have been advised not to kill them.”

According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service web site, two species of bats that live in North Carolina are listed as endangered by the federal government. Those two species are the Virginia Big-eared bat and the Indiana bat.

It is not known what kind of species inhabits the courthouse.

Finding a solution to a ongoing problem

Wayne Jenkins has seen and experienced the existing problems first hand, originally as Public Works Director and now as County Manager.

“I can attest to the bat situation and the attempt to seal all crevices and cracks,” said Jenkins.

In the past, the county has taken action to remove bats from the attic in the courthouse and prevent moisture from taking its toll on the historical building. Jenkins said a professional company was hired by the county previously to seal all the cracks and crevices to keep bats out and a $6,500 Williamsburg drainage system was put in as well to draw water away from the structure. Lights in the attic continually burn to deter bats from entering the courthouse, though Jenkins said they often burn out and need to be replaced.

Maintaining the building is something the county has strived to do and continues to do so.

Jenkins said maintenance for the courthouse is included in this year’s budget, which will cover a new paint job, replacement of molding and repairing damaged floor tiles.

Though Jenkins said the removal of bats was not budgeted, he is in the process of researching Trutech and other companies that deal with the removal of pests. Jenkins said if the commissioners moved forward with a contract for the removal of the bats, the funding would come from the contingency fund or the line item put aside for maintenance for the county buildings, which could affect the planned repairs for the courthouse.

County Attorney Charles Vaughan, who has worked in and around the building for nearly 40 years, has also seen the county’s effort to preserve and maintain the building.

“We have done lots of things to try to solve the problem,” said Vaughan in regards to the bats. “Bats can gain access to buildings through very small spaces…as big as a finger.”

Though Vaughan said he never has seen a bat in the courthouse, he has heard the stories of those who have come in contact with the bats.

“There is money in the county budget to try to remediate the problem,” said Vaughan. “It is difficult, a building that age; the bricks are like sponges …There is not a practical way to prevent the problem. The only way to really solve the problem is to excavate under the whole foundation and seal it, and we can’t really do that.”

Vaughan noted architects have informed county officials these problems did not manifest until air conditioning and heating was installed in the historic courthouse.

“When a formerly unheated building becomes heated, then you have moisture problems,” said Vaughan. “Some other historic properties around the country have the same problem. These problems did not crop up overnight. We have made many improvements to the building since I have been here. The building has not been neglected; it’s been cared for. There are just some problems that cannot readily be fixed.”

In February, the Rural Courts Commission noted the pest, health and security problems with the courthouse and handed down several recommendations to the county, including the formation of a Facility and Security Committee to include courts and county personnel and also for that committee to undertake short term plans and consider a new court facility in a long-term plan.

Jenkins said he plans to follow the Rural Courts Commission recommendations as much as the county’s finances allow.

“We don’t want our citizens and county employees exposed to this,” said Jenkins.

At Monday’s meeting the commissioners agreed to meet with judicial officials soon about the existing problems in the courthouse.