Armed with pictures of mold, stories of rats and descriptions of pungent odors permeating their workplace, Baltimore Circuit Court employees unloaded a long list of complaints last night to City Council members at a hearing on conditions in the two courthouse buildings on Calvert Street.
Angel Thomas, one of about 35 employees who turned out for the hearing, said she had developed asthma during her eight years working in the 73-year-old Courthouse East building -- the old main post office and federal court.
"I've seen rats in the cafeteria, fleas and mites in the carpet. Every day, I have to wipe black stuff off my desk from the ventilation system," said Thomas, 33. "We don't even know what it is."
Some employees complained of bronchitis, others of open sores from insects in the carpet, and a few simply said the whole place stank.
City health officials expressed support for cleaning up the courthouses, but said that the conditions did not constitute a health risk.
Acting Health Commissioner Francine J. Childs noted a 2001 study that found "no serious or pervasive microbiological problems."
Public works officials also presented a report on their efforts to improve courthouse conditions, including increased exterminator visits, more trash pickups, and netting draped over the buildings to deter pigeons and their resulting mess.
But union officials representing courthouse employees came with a report of their own, including pictures of dirty vents, skin rashes and bats caught between the netting and windows.
One page, showing a moldy floor that employees say was insect-infested, included this caption: "Employees, on the weekend and their own time, removed the old carpet little by little. ... They were literally being eaten alive."
In addition, the state's attorney's office was told last week that peeling paint in one room on the fourth floor had tested positive for lead.
Many employees testified that they were tired of halfhearted attempts by the city to solve the problems.
"A `quick fix' for these old buildings would be like putting a patch on a bald tire," said Frank M. Conaway, the clerk of the Circuit Court. He and others have asked the city to start thinking about building a new courthouse.
"Hotels and stadiums are luxuries. In a pinch, we can do without them," Conaway said. "We can't make do with a defective criminal justice system."
Conaway's daughter, Councilwoman Belinda K. Conaway, said she called for last night's hearing before the Judiciary and Legislative Investigation Committee after touring both buildings in June.
"These employees should be commended," she said, "for coming into work every day despite the rats, soot and mold."
Sheriff's Sgt. Sam Cogen said the courthouse was not only filthy but dangerous because of its layout.
"The other courthouses in Maryland have separate corridors for criminal defendants. In our courthouse, we have to ask people to stand on the other side of the hall while we walk dangerous people through the halls," said Cogen, president of the union representing the city sheriff's officers who guard the buildings.