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Washington Neighborhoods
History's basement: County records may be threatened by their storage facility

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Some of Washington County's oldest government records are at risk because they're stored in a basement without a sprinkler system or security, where the temperature fluctuates, dust falls, roaches have lived and pipes occasionally have leaked sewage, according to two union officials and an employee who said she became ill while working there.

Criminal case files, court transcripts and some of Register of Wills Kathleen Flynn Reda's records from the county's beginnings in the 1780s are stored in 10,000 square feet the county leases from East Beau Building Inc. in Washington. Alexandra Minnis, the storage center's sole employee for more than four years, said other documents kept there include registries of doctors and other professionals from the 1780s, tax records from the 1800s, handsome hand-drawn maps and a book with transcriptions of letters that courthouse architect F.J. Osterling sent the commissioners while working on the 103-year-old building.

Minnis said she developed asthma, "constant sinus infections" and allergies while working in the center about a block from the courthouse and in September began a 3 1/2-month medical leave. Under doctor's orders to stay out of the storage center until conditions improve, Minnis has a temporary position in the county elections office.

She and the officials of Service Employees International Union Local 585/668 -- Washington County Chapter President Pete Lorenzo and assistant chief steward Becky Bailey -- want the county to test air quality in the storage center. The trio also raised security concerns, saying that with Minnis no longer minding the center, various county workers have been given access to the space housing a mix of public records and confidential files.

Historic records are just some of the holdings. The center also is crammed with boxes containing more recent files for Children and Youth Services, the commissioners, controller, coroner, district attorney and other agencies, and at least one office has experienced a security breach.

Jean L'Altrelli, assistant to Coroner S. Timothy Warco, said she visited the center one day and found "strewn on a table" some coroner's files and an envelope, flap open, containing photographs from a death scene. Warco called the situation "unfortunate" when he learned about it last week.

Other county officials said problems aren't as serious as Minnis and the union officials described. At the same time, they said the site is less than ideal and might prompt the county to seek a new storage center.

"There are some issues that need to be addressed," Commissioners John P. Bevec said.

Cathi Kresh, chief clerk and director of administration, said she saw little dust and no roaches while visiting the center about three weeks ago.

"Does it have a library smell? Yeah," she said.

Commissioner J. Bracken Burns said he wasn't worried about people snooping in private files because only confidential employees visit the center, an assertion contradicted by other officeholders who store records there. Prothonotary Phyllis Ranko Matheny said an intern is among the employees she has sent to the center.

Wesley Cramer, president of East Beau Building Inc., said his company has responded promptly to the county's few complaints during the 10 years the county has leased the space, and he characterized the parties' relationship as excellent. He said an exterminator told his company the roaches may have arrived with boxes the county purchased to store files.

The county this year will pay about $39,000 for the space, beneath the Peacock Keller law offices. Cramer said some of the firm's lawyers are building owners.

A shortage of space in the courthouse and Courthouse Square prompted the county to create the storage center, itself running out of space now. Its proximity to the county complex enabled offices to retrieve documents with relative ease.

Minnis inventoried and stacked the boxes delivered to the center by county workers; retrieved records requested by county employees, officials and the public; and controlled access to the building. Now, she and the union officials said, employees from various offices help themselves to the files.

Court administrator Christine Brady, who oversees the center from the courthouse, said she believes some of the union's complaints are an outgrowth of personnel issues involving Minnis.

"Other than dust, I don't see a whole lot of problems down there," Brady said.

Minnis received a three-day suspension last year for arriving at work a minute or two late on three occasions, Bailey said. The union has challenged the suspension, claiming Minnis was harassed because of a personal dispute with Brady.

Brady requires employees from other offices to sign out a key for the storage center. However, the county learned the hard way last year that keys can be duplicated.

Brian Stockdale, an intern in the county's information technology department, was charged in August with stealing two laptop computers and $38,000 in cash and checks during burglaries of the treasurer's office and tax claim office. Sheriff Larry Maggi said Stockdale let himself into the offices with a master key he had copied during his lunch hour.

Minnis, Lorenzo and Bailey also made the following complaints about the storage center:

A pipe leaked on three occasions, dripping sewage into boxes holding some of the district attorney's confidential investigative files.

Cramer said he was unaware of leaky pipes, and District Attorney John C. Pettit said he did not know about problems in the storage center.

Hundreds of boxes have piled up on the floor because of a lack of shelving. Storm runoff has seeped into the building under a garage door, wetting boxes on the floor and damaging records inside.

Cramer said his company once replaced a garage door seal because of "very minor seepage." He said he believed the runoff was captured by a drain inside the door and did not damage records.

Minnis had to continue working in the center alone after Lee Gregory, the county's occupational safety and health manager, wrote a memo in December 2000 saying she was "potentially subject to injury or a fall, without anyone outside being able to know or assist, because of the isolation of the center."

Minnis said she had to undergo physical agility tests before taking the job, which required her to lift 30-pound boxes while standing on a ladder. She said employees now sent to retrieve files have not had such tests.

Though roaches have been seen in the center, some oversized books sit exposed on shelves. Other files are in acid-free boxes that offer little protection given temperature fluctuations.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission archivist Susan Hartman said the special boxes "lose their buffering ability within a year or so" in a building without a controlled climate, according to notes county law Librarian Nancy Weiss made after Hartman visited the center in September 2001.

According to Weiss' notes, Hartman said sewerage and water pipes above stacks of boxed records were a hazard and recommended installation of a sensor to detect a leak or flood.

No sensor was installed.

Minnis said she didn't like using ceiling-mounted heaters because the warm air peeled labels off of boxes and made papers inside them brittle.

The county has lost records before, in a 1989 fire in the courthouse attic reportedly started by a pigeon carrying a cigarette. Minnis said records that survived the fire eventually were moved to the center, soot intact.

Without a sprinkler system in the storage center, Minnis and the union officials said, thousands of records again are at risk.

Minnis described the center's contents as "the whole history of Washington County in one building."

Reda said she has microfilm backups of some records in the center and, if necessary, could reconstruct other records stored there from docket books kept in her courthouse office.

But many other offices don't have backup copies of records kept in the storage center. Clerk of Courts Barbara Gibbs, for example, could lose decades of records to a fire or flood.

That includes records involving the county's earliest leaders, most prominent citizens and most celebrated cases, such as documents pertaining to the New Year's Eve 1969 slayings of United Mine Workers dissident Jock Yablonski, his wife and daughter that were ordered by then-union head Tony Boyle. Clemmy Allen, a South Strabane resident and special assistant to UMW President Cecil Roberts, said the records recount an important chapter in UMW history and should be preserved.

Gibbs said one of her employees reported a couple of weeks ago that boxes stored near the ceiling were unusually warm to the touch. Kresh said the heat probably came from lights a visitor forgot to turn off.

Purchasing agent Nancy Bielawski said the county may explore the possibility of finding a new storage site.

Meanwhile, Brady said some records will be transferred to the county health center, freeing space in the cramped storage center. She said about 600 boxes of unneeded records will be destroyed, freeing additional space.

But it will take more than that to satisfy Lorenzo and Bailey, who want a comprehensive air quality test to see what, if anything, might be a hazard to employees working there and a cleanup if problems exist. While Brady said an asbestos test revealed no problems of that type in the center, the union officials said they've never seen that report.

Because of low lighting, elections director Larry Spahr jokingly calls the storage center the "foyer part of a coal mine." But Spahr, who stores voting equipment there, said he hasn't gotten sick while working at the center 12 weeks a year.

"Relatively speaking," he said, "this is the best place we've had to use."

Joe Smydo can be reached by at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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