A most disorderly Camden courthouse

Posted: April 03, 2007

The court administrator in Camden County, Michael O'Brien, uses words like "horrible," "wretched" and "ridiculous" to describe what he says is the worst judicial building in New Jersey: the Parkade building in Camden.

He's not exaggerating.

Water leaks through the roof onto desks and cabinets on the top floor, leaving half of the offices unusable. Workers call one regularly waterlogged area "the mold room." You can see through a deteriorated wall into a damp parking garage.

Pieces of concrete, corrugated metal and tiles fall from ceilings. Urine-stinking elevators often break down. A county worker caught Legionnaires' disease in the building in 2003 and the file-storage area in the basement - known by workers as "the dungeon" - is strewn with trash and home to rats.

For six years, state Superior Court officials have been seeking better offices for 250 employees who work in the privately owned building and for thousands of citizens who visit probation, juvenile and child-support offices there.

Because of a law that makes state courts the tenant and county government the landlord, the courts and Camden County are now adversaries in a lawsuit against the Parkade's owner.

Camden County has been battling building owner Nedmac Associates for years to fix dangerous conditions and improve maintenance. Last November, the county filed a lawsuit against Nedmac in Burlington County.

Two weeks later, Superior Court intervened in the lawsuit - against the county. The courts want the county to find another location for court offices within a year.

"If it is not knocked down, it will fall down on its own," said O'Brien, the Superior Court trial court administrator in Camden County. "The Parkade is regarded as the worst facility occupied by Superior Court staff in the state. We're in court now because nothing has changed."

The state Judicial Unification Act relieves county taxpayers of responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the courts but left them responsible for providing adequate space for the judicial system.

A court-appointed building manager now uses some of rent paid by the county to fix the fire alarm, pay utility bills and buy toilet paper, court officials said.

Nedmac officials could not be reached for comment.

Camden County Administrator Ross Angilella said the county is working to improve the building and find another location for the courts "by the end of the year or sooner."

"We are the ones who took Nedmac to court," he said. "We are addressing safety and comfort issues while working on finding an alternate site as expeditiously as possible."

Camden County counsel Deborah Silverman Katz said the county had a new fire-safety system installed a few months ago.

Despite the troubles, the county renewed its lease for the Parkade in 2005. Moving out, the county says, would be complicated by the amount of space needed and by requirements to be near public transportation and in a safe area.

For now, nobody is happy.

"It's filthy in there," said Edward Graham, 25, of East Camden, after making a child-support payment. "It smells of pee. It's not comfortable. People deserve better than this."

Julio Cruz, 27, of South Camden, said he feels sorry for court workers.

"I don't even like to touch anything in there," said Cruz, who visited the probation division. "The place is ridiculous."

On the side of the 52-year-old building facing City Hall, part of a brick wall is separating from the facade. Sheets of rusting metal and stalactite-like formations of deteriorating concrete hang from the parking garage.

Inside, employees brace for the every-summer flea infestation, which follows the annual rat-population surge in the basement.

"Once the fleas occupy a building, they get into the rugs and lay eggs that hatch every few days," said Deborah Robertson, operations manager for Superior Court in Camden. "They're hard to get rid of them."

Louis Narvaez Jr., chief probation officer, rattles off complaints that range from inadequate restroom supplies to unreliable elevators.

"We've had staff stuck in elevators for 45 minutes," he said. "I usually use the steps." Last fall, a pregnant woman - rescued by firefighters - had to climb a ladder to escape.

O'Brien said the Legionnaires' disease bacterium was found in the building's domestic water supply and cooling tower in 2003 after a worker from the county prosecutor's office contracted the disease. State Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr. ordered the evacuation of court staff for six weeks after that.

A fire that started in bad wiring last year also concerns officials, said O'Brien.

Last week, some offices on the top floor of the five-story building were vacant. Some had holes punched in the ceiling to let water from a leaking roof drain.

On the fourth floor, a forest of oscillating fans sent a powerful breeze though an office that workers say reaches 87 degrees in the summer.

The Parkade building isn't the only Camden building that concerns state judiciary officials. In court papers and letters to county officials, the state court officials have expressed concern over "dangerously overcrowded" prisoner-holding cells and insufficient courtroom, office and conference-room space at the nearby Hall of Justice.

"The Hall of Justice is on its way to being the next Parkade," said court administrator O'Brien. "It's grossly overused and abused."

Sheriff's officers escort prisoners through hallways designed for judges and jurors, he said, and lawyers must discuss sensitive issues in public hallways.

Court officials said the 21-year-old Hall of Justice, which gets up to 7,000 visitors a day, has simply run out of space.

He said architectural studies have shown the court needs at least another 100,000 square feet by 2010.

The county clerk and surrogate moved from the court and the court's library was closed to utilize the space for hearing rooms and courtrooms.

But the adjustments have not been enough to keep up with the needs, said Robertson. "We do the best with what we have," she said.

Contact Staff Writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.

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