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July 4, 2014

‘It’s just falling apart’: Crumbling stairs may force detour for inmates

EBENSBURG — Steps outside the Cambria County Courthouse are deteriorating, and now officials are considering what steps to take to fix the problem.

A concrete staircase on the south side of the building is pulling away. If the problem is not addressed soon, the steps will have to be taken out of use.

The steps overlook the parking lot where Sheriff Bob Kolar parks his department’s vehicles. The stairs are used to move inmates brought from the county prison and elsewhere to the courtrooms.

“It’s just falling apart,”  Court Administrator William Valko said as he pointed out troublesome areas with the steps.

At the urging of President Judge Timothy Creany, the county commissioners have agreed to hire an expert to look at the problem and make recommendations.

CJL Engineering has been hired for design of renovations to the south side of the courthouse and retaining walls at a price of $19,800.

The company’s primary office is in Pittsburgh, but it has offices in Johnstown and in Youngstown, Ohio and St. Louis, according to its website.

“If you go out and take a look at it, it’s bad,” President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said. “The steps are pushed out and the rails and pillars are literally crumbling.”

Cost of the engineer will not come from the county’s general fund budget, he said.

Creany said the design work and repairs will be paid for out of a special fund he controls that is generated by court-related fines and costs.

“We have a beautiful structure and we have to save it,” he said.

The problem is believed to be the result of drainage issues in window walls. While steps were taken several years ago to improve drainage, they were unsuccessful, he said.

The hope is that drainage in all of the window walls around the courthouse can eventually be addressed.

During construction on the south side, deputies transporting inmates will use a basement entrance.

If it is found feasible, Creany said, he would like to see a change in the design of the entrance.

Currently, access from the street is up the dilapidated steps, through a door, then down a flight of stairs to the basement holding cell and the sheriff’s department.

“There may be a change in how we bring them into the basement,” he said.

Cambria County is not unique in its courthouse problems.

Officials in neighboring Blair County are having experts look for ways to stop rainwater from getting into the historic structure. Interior damage has been detected and some judicial artwork damaged.

In mid-June, a Northumberland County commissioner evacuated the 175-year-old courthouse after what appeared to be cracks were discovered in the building.

According to the Sunbury Daily Item, the damage is not new, just old problems that need to be addressed.

No timetable was given for completion for the design for work on the Cambria courthouse. While Creany hoped to see the work done this year, he said it likely will be a project for 2015.

“We’re going to try to keep this place for another 100 years,” he said.

Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at @kathymellotttd.

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