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Lawrence courthouse declared unsafe

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — The Lawrence County Commission is feeling heat after the state fire marshal declared the courthouse unsafe last week and ordered officials to bring electrical systems to standards, and limit visitors and employees to 49 per floor.

Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to appeal the order on the recommendation of County Attorney Cecil Caine.

State Fire Marshal Edward S. Paulk has been warning the county for months to clean up stairwells and fire exits, and make necessary repairs at the courthouse on Court Street. He issued the order after determining that the building was still violating the Uniform Fire Code during an inspection June 28.

According to the order dated July 5, the courthouse's electrical system was overloaded, occupied spaces were being used for non-designated purposes, junk or boxes in stairwells was blocking traffic and fire exits, and an excessive amount of paper records was creating a fire hazard.

'Hazardous conditions'

"The hazardous conditions in the Lawrence County Courthouse constitute an imminent danger to life and property," it states.

The order states that the problems in the courthouse will require an architect, electrician and possibly an engineer to correct. Paulk gave the commission 30 days to hire professionals to devise plans to bring the building into compliance with state codes.

He ordered the commission to immediately stop using extension cords for electrical service and remove all records and debris from stairwells.

The fire marshal also set a limit of 49 visitors or employees on the basement, first and second floors, and only assigned employees on the third floor. The only exception to this is when court is in session. During trials, hearings or similar proceedings, the commission is required to have a Moulton Fire Department employee present.

Interim Fire Chief Ryan Jolly told the commission Monday that his employees would charge $20 per hour — the same fee deputies charge — with a four-hour minimum.

Appeal prepared

Caine had the appeal paperwork prepared before the meeting Monday and asked the commission to approve and sign it before the five-day deadline.

"They are trying to get our attention on this," he said. "They see this as an important safety concern ... I asked that we be given a reasonable amount of time. I don't think anyone anticipated we'd be hit with this."

He said the courthouse's stairwells and fire escapes were brought into compliance following an inspection in February and the county is beginning Phase 2 of a four-phase courthouse renovation plan.

The first phase — replacing a 20-year-old roof — is nearly complete. The commission has hired an architect to lead the final three phases, which include refurbishing windows, updating electrical and mechanical systems, and repairing gutters and downspouts.

The total cost — including the non-required repairs — is estimated at $667,000, said County Administrator Linda Harville.

Commissioner Bradley Cross said the fire marshal employee who inspects the courthouse and other county buildings has been hard on them.

"He's giving us a rough time even at the Sheriff's Department ... I don't believe the chief fire marshal understands everything that goes on in these inspections," he said.

Cross said the county cannot immediately implement the changes and complete the costly construction the fire marshal ordered.

"The fire marshal needs to use a little common sense when talking about construction like that," he said.

Caine said, with time, the county can get the courthouse up to standards, but being forced to act quickly will disrupt county and courthouse operations.

The commission's appeal to Lawrence County Circuit Court states that implementing the fire marshal's order would result in "irreparable damage to the business of the county and specifically the operations of the Circuit, District and Probate Courts, the Circuit Clerk's Office and the Revenue Commissioner's Office and would virtually shut down the county government."

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