published Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Dalton officials move city court

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    Dalton Municipal Court building. Staff Photo by Allison Carter.

Dalton, Ga., employees are packing to move out of the old city courthouse by next week after officials decided not to spend the necessary money to fix the building's multiple safety hazards.

Once the building is vacant, a Whitfield County/Dalton building inspector said he is pulling the plug on the lights and will not allow the building to be used publicly until repairs are made. Among the problems are a leaky roof and dangerous wiring.

"It isn't safe for occupation by the public," Mark Mitchell, an officer with the joint Inspection and Enforcement Department, said Tuesday. "We're going to require certain repairs before it's used for anything but storing."

The decision to move employees to a vacant section of the city public works building came several days after the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that at least two employees complained to multiple health agencies that the court building was uninhabitable.

City Administrator Ty Ross said officials decided to move after he presented estimates to the Finance Committee on Friday, showing that it would cost more than $30,000 to make the necessary repairs for the building to meet city code.

The Inspections and Enforcement office has a list of repairs for the building, but the most dangerous safety concern is the circuit breaker that can't be shut off, Mitchell said. Circuit breakers cut power when lines are overloaded or shorting out.

Employees said last week that conditions in the courthouse have been getting worse for months, but the issue came to a head on Feb. 1 when a water pipe burst, flooding the entire two-story building.

A week later, court employees, who had moved to a city building with vacant offices, say they were told they had to return to the courthouse by City Judge Jim Wilbanks.

City officials have known since October about the courthouse's poor conditions, but admitted last week that the building wasn't fixed because the city could be making administrative changes.

On Monday, part of those changes were approved. At its regular meeting, the City Council voted to contract out with a private probation company, eliminating four probation positions whose offices are in the courthouse, Ross said.

The public works building has room to accommodate the four employees left with the court and has three options on where to hold the weekly court sessions, he said. There is empty space at the Whitfield County jail and in Superior Court or the city could rent space at the Dalton Trade Center for about $600 a month, Ross said.

Dalton Public Schools owns the building, but has a 10-year lease with the city.

City officials are responsible for any repairs, Mitchell said.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

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 ...

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