Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press Dalton Municipal Court in Dalton, Ga., has missing tiles above the entrance and exit doors. City employees have complained to federal and state agencies about problems ranging from mold to wallpaper peeling off the walls.
DALTON, Ga. -- Several city court employees have complained to multiple health agencies that constant roof leaks and mildew on walls and ceilings have made the municipal court building uninhabitable.
Last week, at least two city employees filed complaints about the conditions with federal and county agencies.
Dalton officials said this week they weren't aware of any immediate health issues with the building, but said they'll propose an amended budget at a City Council Finance Committee meeting on Friday to fix some of the pressing safety issues.
But city officials have known since October about the courthouse's conditions because they were given a report that contained a laundry list of problems with the building, according to documents obtained by the Times Free Press.
While the city is ultimately responsible for fixing the problems, there is a great deal of confusion over which agency has the ability to force the city to make repairs.
"We know we have to do to something," said Mayor David Pennington. "If anybody could show us if anybody's health is in danger, we would do something immediately."
Employees say conditions at the Dalton Municipal Court -- formerly the Whitfield County Jail -- have been getting worse for months, but came to a head on Feb. 1 when a water pipe burst, flooding the entire two-story courthouse. A week later, court employees, who had moved to a city building with vacant offices, said they were told they had to return to the courthouse by City Judge Jim Wilbanks.
"When you walked into the door, you got smacked in the face with the mold and the mildew smell to the point where it literally suffocated you," said Corey Godzwa, the city's probation director, whose office is inside the courthouse. "But we were told it was in the people's best interest to be in the building."
List of safety issues with Dalton Municipal Court made in October:
Roof is leaking and causing mold and mildew in the interior walls and ceiling
Excessive use of drop electrical cords
Drinking fountain doesn't work
No hot water
Bathrooms are not accessible
Courtroom exceeds occupancy limits
Source: Dalton/Whitfield County Inspection and Enforcement Administrator Greg Williams
Now Godzwa and probation officer Sebastian Salazar say they are "infuriated" they must work in such poor conditions and filed complaints first to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and then to the Whitfield County Environmental Health Department.
Dalton/Whitfield County Inspection and Enforcement Administrator Greg Williams said he inspected the building in October and sent an e-mail to City Administrator Ty Ross, identifying the building's problems.
"It was in bad shape," Williams said Monday.
Inside the Dalton court building, the smell of mildew is strong and spots of mold can be seen along the ceiling and behind torn wallpaper. Above the entrance to the probation office, ceiling tiles are missing and air conditioning ducts and wiring are falling out.
When the pipe burst in the beginning of February, city officials said they didn't know of any other safety problems to the building. But now they admit the building wasn't fixed because the city might be making administrative changes that would eliminate city offices inside the courthouse.
With discussion of merging county and city agencies now in the works, the city might merge its courts with Whitfield County's, Pennington said, totally eliminating Dalton city court.
Next week, Pennington said, the City Council also will discuss whether a private probation company will take over the city's in-house probation services. With a private company, the city wouldn't have to house a probation office in the courthouse.
Ross said a private agency was hired last week to give an estimate for fixing the courthouse. The city currently has $6,000 budgeted for court maintenance, and more than $3,500 was spent to make repairs after the flooding, who said.
However, city officials are against an expensive proposal since Dalton City Schools actually owns the building, Ross said. City and school officials swapped buildings at the end of 2009 and city officials have a 10-year lease to use and maintain the courthouse.
Despite finding the list of problems during the October inspection, Williams said he didn't give a deadline for repairing the building because the city had requested the information.
After the building flooded in February, Mark Mitchell, an officer with the inspection and enforcement department, said he couldn't "in good conscience" allow the power to be turned back on until some of the wiring was fixed.
The immediate safety hazards were fixed, but Mitchell said the inspections and enforcement department couldn't investigate the mold in the building because it doesn't have jurisdiction over it.
After Godzwa and three other employees filed health complaints with OSHA on Friday, they were told that the federal department doesn't investigate county and state buildings. So the complaints were given to the county health department to investigate.
"It's potentially a serious issue," said the county Health Director Chad Mulkey.
While Mulkey said he plans to investigate the complaints, the health department doesn't have any jurisdiction over mold issues and he didn't know who does.
Wilbanks said he doesn't think the building is uninhabitable.
A week after the building flooded, Wilbanks said he pushed for the city to move quickly to clean the water and fix electrical problems so employees could be back in the building.
"I wasn't aware of anything after the flooding other than we had to tear up some carpet," he said.
Contact Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...