AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — A trip to county jail or state prison might not be the worst sight ahead for some of Augusta's poorest criminal defendants.
First, there's a visit to the public defender's office, where cockroaches nest in the ceiling and water fails to drain from beneath the office's decrepit mobile buildings, creating mold, Augusta Circuit Public Defender Katherine Mason told city commissioners recently.
While several commissioners expressed disgust at the conditions, others weren't as receptive to options Mason presented, including moving to rented space at the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. office building on Laney Walker Boulevard, which would require renovations, or building a new facility at $260 a square foot.
The mobile Taylor Street office buildings were "intended to be a temporary solution" when the office was revamped under new state laws in 2005, and never permanent, although the city will soon be installing a new roof, city Facilities Manager Rick Acree said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, water was standing in the employee parking lot at the low-lying facility. A nearby former laundromat, also part of the defender's office space, once flooded twice in two weeks and is now used only for storage, while pooled water is rotting the skirting around the wheeled structures, Mason told commissioners.
"Cockroaches crawl up the inside of the walls from the ground, and then they come up and nest on top of the ceiling," requiring removal every few months, she said.
The office, which serves juvenile and superior courts in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties and state and magistrate courts in Richmond, has grown in staff and caseload. In 2010 under former Public Defender Sam Sibley, it had a staff of 10.
Today it has a staff of 34 attorneys, eight investigators and 14 administrative personnel serving some 8,400 clients, the bulk of whom face charges in Richmond County, Mason said.
The state partially funds the salary and benefits of 11 staff, while each county shoulders the office's operating expenses based on population, she said.
The facility lacks restrooms for clients and costs the counties dearly in repairs to its 13 air conditioning units, which "don't last long," Mason said.
Commissioner Bill Lockett, who'd toured the buildings, advised his colleagues do the same, but to "go after lunch" to avoid losing their appetites, while Commissioner Grady Smith said "y'all deserve combat pay working in that place."
Despite the need, a new public defender building did not make the list of sales tax-funded projects voters rejected last May, but it did send Mason to meet with Heery International, which has overseen large city construction projects for more than a decade.
Mason said Heery's Forrest White estimated a new building meeting its needs would cost $260 a square foot, for a total price of $7.1 million if built on city land.
The public defender's office needs to be on a transit route and within walking distance of the courthouse, as some clients don't have cars, and must retain all legal records in perpetuity, requiring substantial storage space.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, a contractor, was shocked by the estimates and suspected a reasonable facility might be created for less.
Asked whether she had other options, Mason said she'd explored the prospect of moving into the ANIC Building on Laney-Walker Boulevard, a few blocks from the courthouse, if the building was modified - at a price that was "flexible" between $1.8 million and $3 million.
ANIC, whose board members include Commissioner Bill Fennoy, has long been the beneficiary of city funds, despite being chronically behind on tax bills, according to tax records. The firm collected $176,840 in rent in 2012 at above-market rates with built-in 3 percent annual increases, an Augusta Chronicle analysis found.
The firm currently has 80 past due accounts from 2013 and 84 from 2014 on numerous holdings, according to tax records, which show even garbage collection fees unpaid on tax-exempt properties, which include the ANIC Building itself.
Commissioner Ben Hasan told Mason the commission had previously refused to purchase the ANIC Building for $1 million so would unlikely spend more than that to renovate it.
"You may have to keep looking," Hasan said.
Commissioner Marion Williams said the building itself had problems, including small elevators and limited parking.
"You'd be putting good money after bad money, in my opinion," Williams said.
Acree said among the city's numerous properties, it lacked anything with 10,000 square feet of unocuppied space and would be forced to lease, buy or build a new facility if commissioners determined the office should move.
The city also has no ready source of funds for the project, although it could be included on the next special purpose, local option sales tax referendum.
Mason said Wednesday she'd be receptive to whatever the commission's will was. The group's public safety committee recommended she meet with City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson to determine a course forward.
Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com