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Municipal court judge: Our building is in shambles

Thursday, March 3, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

Austin Municipal Court is so overcrowded that employees are working in closets throughout the building, which is filled with asbestos and is one technical glitch away from not functioning, according to courthouse staff.

Presiding Judge Sherry Statman told City Council on Tuesday that the neglected building, constructed in 1955, cannot be upgraded because of asbestos, a known carcinogen, which is laced throughout the walls, ceilings and floors.

As a result, she said, “there’s been so much lipstick put on the pig that it’s more lipstick than pig at this point.”

Statman elaborated that climate control at 700 E. Seventh St. is poor, the elevators are faulty and there are issues with the windows, roof and foundation. Also, the communication network is 30 years old and can’t be updated because of the asbestos.

“There is no fix,” said Municipal Court Clerk Mary Jane Grubb, adding that the court handles 2,000 phone calls and processes $23,000 in payments over the phone daily. “We do not have a contingency plan for this.”

Grubb said safety is also an issue. Courthouse patrons say they pass aggressive panhandlers and sometimes drug-peddlers on the way to the building, and employees who sit at the front counters have no glass barriers. Council Member Leslie Pool noted that people who visit municipal court are typically paying fines or seeking help with a potentially emotionally charged issue.

“It is really appalling, the conditions where our staff is working,” Pool said, adding she recently toured the building.

Council Member Pio Renteria said some of his schoolteachers died of cancer after working in a school with asbestos, and he was concerned that city staff was working under such conditions.

“I’m very alarmed to hear of the asbestos in our city jail and municipal court,” he said. “Wherever that asbestos is at, it’s a very dangerous situation to expose to employees.”

Pool said it was clear that the court had “just been overlooked, maybe for 20 years.”

According to city staff, a 2006 bond election included funding for new land for a new building. Two adjacent sites on I-35 near Highway 183 were purchased, according to city spokeswoman Alicia Dean. The city paid $2.9 million in 2013 for a site that formerly housed a Chrysler dealership and $8.1 million in 2008 for a site with a former Home Depot store, Dean said.

“What is no longer viable is repurposing a big box,” said the city’s real estate services officer, Lauraine Rizer. However, the sites remain viable options, she said.

The court building – which gets mixed reviews on the website Yelp – was clearly the most pressing need presented during a briefing on city facilities.

Staff will now begin work immediately on an emergency back-up plan for the courthouse, then work on finding a temporary court replacement facility. Greg Canally, Austin’s deputy chief financial officer, said that staff will additionally continue working on a more permanent solution.

“These are issues that have been hanging around for along time,” Canally said. “We wanted to come to you in steps, instead of coming forward with one big chunk, and then will seek Council action for additional planning work.”

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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