Friday, December 18, 2009

Asbestos Complicates Arizona Courthouse Move

Judges, attorneys and other court staff at the criminal courts building in Mesa, Arizona are being forced to move their offices and courtrooms to nearby Phoenix next month. The move is part of an effort to reorganize the Maricopa County Superior Court system. However, since the Phoenix facility does not have adequate office space to hold all the new tenants, only half of the county's prosecuting attorneys will make the twenty-mile trip west.
Out of the sixty-seven staff members in the Mesa office, only thirty will have offices ready in the Phoenix building, while the rest will stay in Mesa and make the drive into Phoenix as needed. One of the reasons that the Mesa staff will not have enough space is that portions of the downtown Phoenix court buildings contain potentially dangerous levels of asbestos.
Between the asbestos remediation work and the limited office space, the Mesa staff may not be completely moved into the Phoenix facility until late next summer, according to chief assistant prosecutor Sally Wells. Ms. Wells attributed most of the delays involved to the presence of the dangerous substance throughout most of the building.
Janet Palacino, the head of the Maricopa County Facilities Management Department, stated that some county officials knew of the asbestos contamination found in a court building on the west side of the complex for the past fifteen years. She also said that the building would be undergoing a massive renovation project starting the week of Thanksgiving.
The project is expected to cost about $2.7 million, with over $500,000 going toward the cost of removal and cleanup of asbestos on the building's second, third and fourth floors. Ms. Palacino also stressed that the project would meet all the worker safety and environmental quality standards required by federal law, including breathing masks and special protective clothing for workers.
Last month, the Maricopa County Air Quality Board issued fines totaling over $46,000 to Ms. Palacino's department and two contractors, RFC Holdings and Jokake Construction Services, for breaching federal laws on a similar project carried out on a building on the complex's east side. Ms. Palacino said that the contractors on the west-side project would not start work "until the permit is in our hands".
Holly Ward, a spokesperson for the Air Quality Board, said that the Facilities Management Department was fined just under $10,000, but that the board suspended $3,000 of the fine when three department managers attended asbestos management training classes. The remaining fines were divided between the two contracting firms who carried out the work, but Ms. Ward did not comment on the amounts that each firm was fined.
The move from Mesa to Phoenix comes as the result of a ruling last spring by Presiding Superior Court Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell. Judge Mundell ruled that the move would save the court system thousands of dollars in duplication of effort, inmate transportation costs and overall system efficiency. However, some Mesa prosecutors voiced opposition to the move, stressing that the smaller Mesa facility could deal with cases more efficiently and that it saved participants on the costs involved in the twenty-mile commute.

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