Androscoggin County seeks to rehab aging headquarters

AUBURN — David Cote stared at the ceiling and sniffed the air, still pungent from a fire that ignited Wednesday afternoon when a worker tried to change a light bulb.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Androscoggin County commissioners Elaine Makas, left, and Randy Greenwood, right, with County Clerk Pat Fournier, left center, and building maintenance supervisor David Cote tour the Androscoggin County Superior Courtroom in Auburn. The commissioners hosted a tour of the 154-year-old building to point out that improvements are much-needed.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

David Cote, maintenance supervisor at the Androscoggin County building in Auburn, points to pipes in the basement that had to be shielded from the asbestos insulation. Androscoggin County commissioners conducted a tour of the 154-year-old building to raise awareness of the need for improvements.

"This is what happens around here," said Cote, the maintenance supervisor for the Androscoggin County building.

Wires spark. Pipes crack and leak. Roofing crumbles.

Workers inside the 153-year-old building complain of too little space, safety and security problems, poor heating and ventilation and inadequate facilities, particularly for the handicapped.

"I want to fix things," Cote said. "Too often, all I can do is keep things running."

A fix is in the works.

On Sept. 1, the three-member County Commission plans to request proposals from private companies to conduct an analysis of the building. A report would examine every building system and the needs of every department.

Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte hopes the project will do more, rather than just fill a shelf with a costly report.

"I'd like a consultant to move us toward implementation," he said. He wants whomever is hired to help the county wind its way through the permitting process until a renovation is about to begin, either all at once or in phases.

And he wants to get the county on a capital improvement plan, to avoid falling shy of necessary repairs and upgrades again.

Problems have been ignored for many years, he said.

Patches in the slate roof resemble miscolored squares on a checkerboard. And the patches have worn down and left gaps. Leaks have curled the paint on parts of the wall in the third floor, where the Androscoggin Historical Society keeps its relics. Leaks in the gutters have led to seepage between the brick outer walls of the grand law library and its Sheetrock inner surface, Cote said.

Those walls were repaired less than two years ago.

The sprinkler system is 70 years old. The heating system is aging and there is no central air conditioning.

On a warm morning, people standing in the central courtyard would have trouble talking normally over the sound of the air conditioners that fill many windows, Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.

In the law library, which is used for many court proceedings, the temperature can rise to uncomfortable levels.

"You're literally cooking," County Clerk Patricia Fournier said.

And when the heat is needed, there can be too little. In the winter, some areas turn cold. The employee lounge has the distinction of being the only room in the building with hot running water, due to a contraption installed beneath the sink.

"The building was never designed for hot water," Cote said. "It's that old."

In fact, county workers suspect that some of the high-ceilinged rooms in the basement, located directly beneath the court clerk's office, may have once been stables.

"We definitely are at the end of the line," District Attorney Norman Croteau said. His staff is squeezed into a too-small suite of offices. Without a formal storage area, many of his records are stacked in boxes in an attic-like area that once stood as the county jail. Rather than working at a desk, lawyers brought to Auburn to assist on a case have found themselves working atop filing cabinets.

"If the state said, 'I'll give you another prosecutor,' I don't know where I'd put them," Croteau said.

Finding a place for jail inmates can also be tough. Almost every day, a train of guarded and shackled inmates walks from the jail, connected to the north end of the building, and down public corridors to the courtroom one floor up.

It's a trip prohibited in most modern courthouses.

For Cote, some of the worst problems are building safety issues. When working on a first-floor light fixture, he discovered that a nearby piece of aluminum in the ceiling had become electrified when it came in contact with a bare piece of wire.

It could have started a fire.

"We didn't know where the power was coming from," Cote said. "It happens all the time around here. You call the electrician and let him deal with it."

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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