Oklahoma Capitol building has sewer smells, electrical issues and falling limestone, but funding for fix remains elusive

by Rick Green Published: April 27, 2014

Smelly water is seeping from the floor near Douglas Kellogg’s office in the basement of the state Capitol.

Kellogg, the building manager, thinks a clogged pipe is forcing water to back up through an old drain now covered by flooring.

A power drain cleaner should take care of the problem, but, like so many issues with this 96-year-old building, there is a catch. The original cast iron pipes below the building are so fragile that the cleaner, called a “K50,” could easily punch a hole through the side of the pipe and cause an even bigger problem.

“I’m going to have to run a K50 I guess, but I’m scared to,” Kellogg said.

Nothing is easy in a building where major maintenance has been deferred for years. Barricades have been set up to protect people from falling chunks of the limestone facade. Old cloth-covered electrical wires present another potential hazard. Broken pipes sometimes send a sewage odor through parts of the building.

Bond proposals tough sell

Despite all the problems, taxpayer-supported bond proposals to make permanent repairs have been a tough sell in a conservative Legislature concerned about debt, even though the vast majority of states have more bond debt than Oklahoma. One of the big remaining questions of this legislative session is whether lawmakers will finally support a measure to fix their own workplace.

Tuesday, the Oklahoma House soundly defeated a bill to issue $160 million in bonds to repair the state Capitol, but the state Senate resurrected the plan two days later. It’s not clear what the final outcome will be.

Meantime, Kellogg and his workers go from one quick fix to another to try to protect visitors and state employees.

“These guys are running around like chickens with their heads cut off just trying to chase things,” said John Estus, spokesman for the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services. “They’re doing really good work but they’re just putting Band-Aids on a larger wound.”

One of those temporary fixes occurred in a long pedestrian tunnel under Lincoln Boulevard on the east side of the Capitol.

Concern over the potential for mold in the perpetually moist tunnel led workers to seal it and pump in chlorine gas to kill anything that might be growing there. The 628-foot tunnel still leaks water, so 16 blue plastic trash cans are positioned along the walls to catch the drips. A colorful mural shows Oklahomans at work and play, but, in spots, it’s water-stained and cracked.

A permanent fix for the leaky tunnel would require a major, expensive project in which workers would have to dig up Lincoln Boulevard.

So far, test results for mold at the Capitol have not exceeded health standards, but concerns remain.

“It’s been close,” Estus said. “If something is not done in the near future, we will fail the test. There’s no doubt about it. We are right at the point where we’re close to failing but not failing tests.”

Health problems

Kellogg said he sometimes hears from employees about health issues they attribute to the building.

“If a person comes up to us and says, ‘I’ve got asthma and I never had asthma before,’ how can I say that something didn’t cause that,” he said. “That’s the kind of concerns we get.”

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by Rick Green
Capitol Bureau Chief
Rick Green is the Capitol Bureau Chief of The Oklahoman. A graduate of Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., he worked as news editor for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City before joining The Oklahoman.
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At a glance

Legislature’s

approaches

different

Competing proposals have emerged this legislative session to repair the state Capitol. A Senate plan would authorize a bond issue of $160 million for the repairs. A House proposal would ask voters whether to issue $120 million in bonds. During debate, many lawmakers seemed to agree that repairs are needed but had different approaches on how to pay for these repairs.

Taxpayer’s need say

in repairing Capitol

Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about authorizing bonds to fund repairs. Taxpayers pay the interest on these bonds. Rep. Paul Wesselhoft has argued repairs could be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, with about $10 million spent a year from the General Revenue Fund until repairs are complete. Rep. Steve Vaughan called the Capitol the “people’s house” and said it’s only right that the people be allowed to vote on the issue. House Minority Leader Scott Inman said the state could use some of the $600 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for repairs.

Less bonded debt than

most states

If Oklahoma lawmakers approved a plan favored by the Senate for a $160 million bond issue to fix the Capitol, the state still would have less bonded indebtedness than most states. Jim Joseph, state bond adviser, said Oklahoma ranks No. 38 nationally in tax-supported bond debt per capita. The state now has about $2 billion in such bonds. That amount is set to decrease by 41 percent in the next five years.

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