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State office building racks up $60 million in ongoing repairs

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POSTED July 6, 2014 6:34 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — During her final years working for the state tax board, Peggy Robinson went to work afraid of the building mold that she says left her with constant coughing, headaches and skin rashes.

She also recalls water problems culminating in burst pipes flooding floors and forcing employees to relocate. And that’s not to mention the near-daily annoyances for nearly 2,000 workers at the Board of Equalization headquarters, where Robinson worked from its 1993 opening until her retirement two years ago.

A malfunctioning heating system forced workers to wear jackets at their desks. Water dripped onto their desks. Elevators stalled mid-flight.

Some of the building’s persistent problems even pose a danger to the public. Outside the 24-story office building about five blocks from the state Capitol, scaffolding protects pedestrians from glass panes that have popped out and shattered on the sidewalk.

“It was definitely not conducive to getting your work done on time,” Robinson said of being an employee inside the Board of Equalization building. “They made a choice: It was either having to keep paying for the building or let the employees suffer. I believe they let the employees suffer.”

With repair bills mounting, the state Legislature is now considering how to resolve the long-festering problem and get the employees into a healthier office environment.

State taxpayers so far have shelled out about $60 million for building repairs and $2.3 million to pay workers’ compensation claims and settle lawsuits from fed-up workers.

AB1656 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, requires that the state find a new building to house the agency, which collects about $50 billion in tax revenue each year.

“Any other landlord would be categorized as a slum lord and forced to fix this problem,” said Jerome Horton, the elected chairman of the Board of Equalization.

But advocates for the move say Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has been resistant and is delaying action.

Legislative staff have estimated that planning, designing and building a new headquarters could cost up to $500 million, with an additional $300 million to $400 million in interest payments.

AB1656 would give the Department of General Services, which oversees state government buildings, the authorization to move the tax agency but does not guarantee future funding to do so.

Dickinson and Board of Equalization officials say the governor’s office would rather wait until a larger assessment of Sacramento-area government buildings finishes before deciding what to do with a single site. That review could take up to five years.

Jim Evans, a spokesman for the governor, referred questions to the Department of General Services, which says officials are not indifferent to the concerns but face hurdles. For one, the state still owes $77 million to pay off the high-rise, and terms of the bond require the building to be occupied.

The state settled a lawsuit against the building’s contractor in 2000, but the statute of limitations for suing over defects ran out more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, the repair costs keep mounting and legal challenges keep coming.

“What they’ve done is periodically plug the leaks to the dam instead of rebuilding the dam,” said Anthony Perez, an attorney who filed a lawsuit over the mold issue on behalf of 31 employees in 2008, with the state eventually settling it.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, says employees are not exposed to mold and would be evacuated if that was the case.

“It’s probably the most tested building in all of the state for air quality,” he said.

Perez disputes that and filed a $50 million claim last week, alleging that workers continue to fall ill from mold despite false assurances from management. The agency declined to comment on the claim filed on Wednesday.

At a recent meeting with Board of Equalization employees about AB1656, Dickinson acknowledged it would take another five years for relocation even under the best case scenario. Frowns and sighs spread through the audience of more than 70 employees.

While they wait, the problems persist.

One employee recently found brown water oozing from around a toilet seat cover dispenser as corroding pipes compromise the wastewater system. A state worker has been walking up and down the building checking for smoke because the fire-control system is broken.

Board of Equalization officials say the constant problems damage morale and undermine productivity.

“It’s like someone running through the room screaming,” said Liz Houser, the deputy director of administration tasked with handling building problems.

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