Terracotta bricks, a pipe, and debris are causing headaches in Camden City Hall.
Months-long construction above the city’s Municipal Court could have been an “imminent threat” to hundreds of people and dozens of employees who work there as objects fell from the ceiling, according to an email sent Feb. 6 to Camden officials by an inspector from the state’s Department of Labor and obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.
On Monday, the city shut down the fourth floor Municipal Court indefinitely. All cases are now being heard in an empty courtroom at Camden County Superior Court a few blocks away, leaving up to 50 employees to relocate. About 200 cases are heard in Municipal Court each day.
“We found unstable material within the roof structure above the judges’ chambers a few weeks ago… It could cause material to fall down from the ceiling,” said Dan Keashen, Camden County spokesman. “We met with state inspectors and are following standard procedures.”
Work began two months ago, when the Camden County Improvement Authority (CCIA) hired contractor Tutor Perini to clear out the fifth floor and tear out a 1960s-era jail from the sixth floor, where metal walls and iron bars are being discarded. Underneath the construction site sits the city’s small municipal courtroom.
Then came weeks of mounting problems.
On Dec. 27, an employee filed a complaint with the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration claiming a 3-foot lead pipe fell and was caught in the ceiling’s insulation above her head while court was in session.
OSHA opened an investigation as more incidents followed. Construction was then limited to the nighttime and crews built metal drop ceilings above the judges’ chambers in response. Defendants, meanwhile, were shuttled in and out of courtrooms one day to avoid falling debris.
“The employees, the public and prisoners remain in harm’s way. Please help,” read one complaint filed with OSHA.
The last straw? An employee on Feb. 6 filed a complaint over a brick falling into a judge’s chamber— the second one in two weeks. The city finally halted construction Wednesday to come up with a plan to insert heavy-duty netting used for high-rises around the perimeter of the courtrooms. Construction resumed Monday.
“All three courtrooms will be completely encapsulated within the next few weeks and then there won’t be any chance of anything falling,” said Harry Collins, deputy director of project management for the CCIA.
At the Market Street building on Monday, security guards directed a handful of defendants to the state building across the street. One courtroom there is being used to hear all municipal cases for the next two to four weeks, but parking ticket payments can still be made at City Hall.
Once the $11 million project is complete in August, Camden will be able to lease the 75,000 square feet of space on the fifth and sixth floors to two state agencies— the Department of Community Affairs and the Office of the Public Defender.
“Any time you’re redoing a 100 year-old building, you never know,” Keashen said. “You kind of learn on the fly.”