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CRUMBLING CITY COURT FACILITY DRAWS WRATH OF STATE OFFICIALS, JUDGES HERE

By Mike Hudson

The state is currently withholding a $100,000 payment due the city of Niagara Falls and has threatened a complete cutoff of all funding and aid because of Mayor Irene Elia's continuing refusal to address deteriorating conditions at the Public Safety Building, sources told the Reporter this week.

Officials charged with maintaining courthouses statewide say they've been lied to about the city's intent to bring the building up to minimum standards, and have become fed up with the administration's indifference toward court orders.

"It's obviously a mess, both the situation and the building itself," Chief City Court Judge Mark Anthony Violante said. "The city is responsible to provide a safe and suitable place to house the court, and that simply hasn't been complied with."

Structural problems at the building -- including a leaky roof and windows, dangerous levels of asbestos, black mold and an antiquated heating and cooling system that can cause temperatures to vary by as much as 30 degrees from room to room -- predate the Elia administration. But officials from the state's Unified Court System charge that the mayor has not only ignored these problems, but failed to provide even routine maintenance of the building, thus allowing things to go from bad to worse.

Violante, who has spent 17 years on the City Court bench, said the situation has now reached the crisis stage.

"There's no question about it," he said. "These last four years have been the worst in memory."

Following a routine inspection of the facility on Oct. 25, 2002, the chief inspector of New York State courthouses, Mark Zaretzki, issued a damning report.

"I cannot imagine any remedy for this facility other than a gut renovation," Zaretzki wrote. "The building's systems -- including roof, (heating and cooling), and window need replacing and upgrading. The damaged wall and ceiling surfaces need replacement. Mold which has become visible on wall surfaces likely exists on internal surfaces and needs to be mitigated. Insulation on interior pipes which has been saturated because of water infiltration needs replacement. Ventilation ducts need thorough cleaning and perhaps replacement.

"An engineering assessment should be performed given the amount of water which has infiltrated the building's structure. All of the aforementioned will be further exacerbated by the presence of asbestos throughout this facility," he added.

Zaretzki charged that the routine maintenance of the building isn't even what one might expect from a 10th Street slumlord.

"Cleaning is problematic in this facility as well," he wrote. "While there is evidence of daily dusting, mopping and perhaps even vacuuming, this facility nevertheless appears to be grimy. The facility has not been deep cleaned in years. Wax build-up, discolored ceilings, dark blow-through on relatively new wall surfaces, water stains everywhere, mold and other unidentifiable things growing and dinginess is the impression given by this facility."

In the end, Zaretzki concluded that the Niagara City Court facilities would be hard to equal for general crumminess no matter how hard one looked.

"As you know I am responsible for the statewide inspection of court facilities, and the Niagara Falls City Court is among the most substandard courthouses in the state," he wrote.

Zaretzki's report touched off a series of letters to the city from Harry Brand, the executive assistant of the state's 8th Judicial District, and Ronald Younkins, the state director of court facilities management, based in New York City. Both spoke of "crisis" conditions existing at the city court facility, and both warned of sanctions that might be imposed should the city fail to address the problem.

For nearly a year, Elia chose to ignore the letters. In an attempt to sidestep the recalcitrant administration, Brand even wrote directly to City Council Chairwoman Fran Iusi. She ignored his letter as well.

That's when the state decided to hold back $100,000 due the city for routine cleaning and maintenance of the court facility. Officials said the funding cutoff was meant as a wakeup call for the slumbering administration.

"We would like to see the issues that led to this letter resolved quickly and favorably," Younkins wrote Elia last May. "However we must insist that the law be followed and that the City of Niagara Falls meet its legal obligation to provide suitable and sufficient facilities for the dignified transaction of the business of the court."

While Elia apparently failed to grasp the significance of the repeated warnings, she did seem to understand what the loss of $100,000 meant to the city. She put a resolution before the City Council authorizing a $3 million bond issue to begin renovation of the court facility.

Then, for all practical purposes, she forgot about it.

"The city does not seem to understand that for every dime they spend, they will receive 100 percent reimbursement from the state court system," Violante told the Reporter. "Why wouldn't you fix up your own property if someone else was paying for it?"

Stung by the funding cutoff, Elia directed City Engineer Ashok Kapoor to write a letter to the state outlining the progress made in addressing the problem. The letter, dated Sept. 17 of this year, could have been written by the hacks working on Elia's re-election campaign, veering wildly, as it does, between simple wishful thinking and downright delusion.

In the letter, Kapoor promised work would begin on roof replacement by Sept. 25. That was three weeks ago, and the job has yet to be bid.

He further promised that the replacement of the building's archaic air conditioning system would begin by Oct. 4. That was 10 days ago and, again, the job has yet to be bid.

The asbestos abatement and restoration project would begin, Kapoor wrote, by "the end of October."

Violante and his City Court colleagues, Judges Robert Restaino and Angelo Morinello, aren't holding their breath.

"We've been calling on an almost daily basis to try and find out who was awarded these bids and when the work is going to start," Violante said. "It's a question of safety to the staff here but, more importantly, safety to the constituents who use this facility every day."

City Councilman and mayoral candidate Vince Anello said that no bids have been awarded.

"Nothing has come before the Council from the administration to address any of these issues," he said. "As far as the mayor's concerned, this would appear to be on the 'pay no mind' list."

Sources in Albany and New York City, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Reporter that the state is simply waiting to see whether the voters of Niagara Falls have the good sense to throw Elia out of office on Nov. 4 before imposing any further sanctions.

But those sanctions could be severe. The state Constitution provides for the complete cutoff of aid to municipalities that flout courthouse standards and, in the case of Niagara Falls, that aid amounts to more than 30 percent of the city's annual budget. The city could be bankrupted overnight should the flow of state dollars be interrupted.

"This is a serious health issue, this is a serious security issue and it's a serious fiscal issue," Violante said. "It seems it's finally gotten their attention, but what have they done? Nothing."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 14 2003