Office repair `fell through the cracks'

County didn't check landlord's progress, documents show

Air handlers never replaced

Investment Building '96 work might have cut worker illnesses

July 05, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The 700 state and county employees working inside the Investment Building in Towson could have breathed easier for years if Baltimore County had followed through on a renovation agreement struck with the landlord in 1996.

The owners of the office tower, where workers complain of asthma, respiratory infections and other ailments, agreed four years ago to replace a pair of aging rooftop ventilation units with four newer machines, according to lease documents reviewed by The Sun.

But the landlord never did the work.

And the county never demanded that it be done.

"I'm not going to point a finger," said Robert J. Barrett, a top aide to County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, when asked who in the county bears responsibility for failing to monitor lease obligations. "We recognize it hasn't been followed up on."

The 1996 lease contains an attachment called "Schedule of Repairs and/or Improvements," listing eight improvements that had been completed by the second half of that year and five projects "in the process of being completed."

Among the tasks not done: replacing "the existing two penthouse air handling units with four new air handling units with related controls to enhance the overall ventilation."

Workers have been complaining for more than a decade of poor ventilation and uncomfortable conditions inside the office tower near Towson Town Center. Their concerns took on fresh urgency last fall, when a worker in the building fell ill with Legionnaires' disease. The bacteria that cause the disease were discovered inside the building's water systems, though a direct link was never established between that and the employee's illness.

Since then, managers have found mold growing in interior air-handling units that were installed when the building was constructed in 1966, and the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have inspected the workplace.

Some employees are demanding that the Investment Building be declared a "sick building," and that state and county workers be relocated.

Although the building houses both state and county workers, the county signed the lease and receives reimbursement from the state.

Workers say the latest revelations only add to their belief that managers are insensitive and uncaring about legitimate health concerns.

"I don't know what to say. I'm speechless," said Carol Fegan, 54, a social worker who left her job in 1998 after contracting pulmonary disease. "It would have helped everybody in the situation involved if they had done it."

Said Jeff Bigelow, a representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union: "It's obviously outrageous, but it's simply symptomatic of both the building management and employers' disregard for the health and safety of workers in the building."

The owners plan a $3 million ventilation system upgrade, including replacing the roof units, to resolve the mold problem. But it is now clear that much of the work should have been completed years ago.

"It's just something that fell through the cracks and it is being done now," said Lee Baylin, an attorney who represents A.M.G. Realty Partners of New York, the building's owners.

Even so, rent payments continued to arrive.

The county paid the landlord $890,938 in 1997, and the payments now top $1 million a year. Three times since 1998, the county has added more space to its lease. But it never enforced the repair schedule.

The lease allows the county to perform repairs if the landlord refuses to make them, and deduct the cost from its rent. That option was ignored, too .

County officials say they are getting tough with the landlord, closely monitoring repair schedules, making bottled water available and threatening to place rent in escrow if the ventilation system is not fixed promptly.

They also have hired an occupational physician to meet with workers next week to look for trends in illnesses and symptoms that might be related to the building. Dr. Shirin deSilva of the Indiana-based Parkview Occupational Health Center will receive $150 an hour for her work.

"It gives us an idea if there's a pattern of symptoms," said Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, the county health officer.

The county also has scrapped plans to lease more space in the building for an expanding children's health program.

"We're not going to spend one more dollar in that building," Barrett said. "I'm mad at ourselves on this one. We're not being treated like good customers."

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