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Courthouse exterior repairs disrupt county business

By. Rin Porter

Beginning Aug. 27, county employees arriving for work have been met by ear-splitting noise from jackhammers used by construction workers trying to remove concrete panels from the outside walls of the Courthouse.

Inside the building, employees whose offices were near the window panels being demolished said they were unable to converse with each other or with members of the public who had come to do business, due to the noise.

County Attorney Kyra Ladd's office and Auditor/Treasurer Judy Taves' offices were seriously affected, along with County Assessor Lee Brekke's office and the Seventh Judicial District Court Administration office.

The problem was taken up during the Sept. 3 county board meeting. County department heads and other employees and the state employees who work in Court Administration were invited to share their frustrations and offer suggestions for dealing with the demolition, which may last two months.

Commissioner Jim Hofer, chair of the Building Services Committee, asked for comments, saying "How can we make things work during this difficult time?"

Ladd told the board that her staff had asked whether they should be forced to work "in these conditions." Ladd gave earplugs to her staff, but told some employees that they could work from home unless they had to be present for court or to meet with clients.

Court Administration personnel said they were unable to hear their phones ring, or hear callers speak.

Brekke said he had closed the door to his private office, which is located on the perimeter of the building, and that helped his staff in the outer office, but did not block out all the noise.

During the discussion of the noise problem, commissioners at first blamed the architects at BHH Partners, Perham, who designed the project, saying that the architects should have known that county work would be disrupted by the noise of jackhammers.

Next, the contractor was blamed for doing the work during business hours. But it was pointed out by County Engineer Ryan Odden that no one expected there to be a problem in removing the panels, or that jackhammers would be required.

Odden said that the architects and contractor had studied the Courthouse blueprints and believed that each window panel would just pop out in one piece. "The blueprints don't show that these panels are concrete," he said. "The contractor didn't know and didn't bid on it being this way."

Odden told commissioners, "The contractor told us it's like working with granite — it doesn't crack, it just goes to dust" when struck with sledgehammer or jackhammer. He continued, "They're trying to figure out a method for doing it as quickly and painlessly as possible. They will try several methods today."

Sheriff Mike Carr Jr., IT Department employees and Maintenance Supervisor Sean Uselman all said that the demolition work had not interfered with their operations so far.

Staff members and commissioners made suggestions about how to deal with the noise and vibration. Some employees can be moved temporarily into the IT area, the Auditorium, the Small Courtroom, and the Commissioners' Board Room, if phone lines and computer connections can be supplied. Employees who work with laptop computers can move them easily, but the telephone lines are another story. West Central Telephone Company will be contacted about temporary lines. The Sheriff's Department will purchase a half dozen noise-cancelling headphones and distribute them to employees in affected offices. After construction ends, the Sheriff's Department will put the headphones out at the shooting range for use by deputies.

Court Administration staff told commissioners that a judge will only be in the Courthouse one day this week, due to a statewide district court judges' conference, so the workers could be put to work on the judge's chambers' windows this week.

Odden said, "As soon as they know how they're going to get the panels off, then we can ask for a schedule", and workers can do the windows when employees are away at conferences, on vacation, or working out of the office.

Commissioner Ron Noon asked that an announcement be put on the county's website and in the newspapers, informing the public that county work will be disrupted while the demolition is going on and while the window are being replaced. He asked for patience.

In other business, the board:

• Approved a gambling permit for Ducks Unlimited, for a Sept. 14 raffle at The Cove.

• Approved the layout and copy for a postcard to be sent to property owners by the County Assessor, informing them when their buildings and property will be measured and assessed.

• Appointed a committee to create a process for replacing County Coroner Tim Schmitt, M.D., who informed the board that he will be resigning at the end of 2013.

• Discussed potential locations for a new County Transit Garage, to house the Friendly Rider buses. Locations being considered include the fairgrounds, the industrial park south of the City of Wadena, and the Highway Department property. A location must be chosen and submitted to the State of Minnesota by Dec. 31 in order for the county to qualify for 80 percent matching funds to build the garage.

• Discussed purchase of one or more used vehicles to replace the aging pickup trucks with snow plow attachments that remove snow from county property during the winter months.

• Approved a Conditional Use Permit for WJ Investments in Section 15 of Rockwood Township, to allow two primitive dwelling structures on an individual parcel.

• Approved a CUP for David and Linda Jablonski in Section 15 of Rockwood Township to allow the location of two primitive dwelling structures on an individual parcel.

• Learned that FEMA had submitted a check for $320,000 as payment for some of the rebuilding work on county structures destroyed by the June 17, 2010 tornado.

• Learned that Teamsters Local 320 agreed to the designation of the Emergency Management Director as Grade 54. The position can now be posted as vacant.