Government & Politics

Down to only one elevator in 15-story Jackson County courthouse, judge demands action

Judge demands that Frank White fix courthouse elevators

Jackson County’s presiding judge is demanding that County Executive Frank White fix courthouse elevators damaged after a pipe broke last winter. Only one of four public elevators was working Friday morning.
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Jackson County’s presiding judge is demanding that County Executive Frank White fix courthouse elevators damaged after a pipe broke last winter. Only one of four public elevators was working Friday morning.

Stairways in the 15-story Jackson County Courthouse have been getting a lot of use since a water main break knocked out two of the four public elevators last January.

Occasionally, one of the two working elevators will also go on the blink, which is what happened again this week — and circuit court Presiding Judge David Byrn has had enough.

On Thursday, Byrn called out County Executive Frank White for failing to fix the problem by now. Calling the lack of adequate elevator service “absolutely unacceptable,” Byrn said county government is violating its legal obligation to maintain the courthouse, through which 2,000 people pass each weekday.

“...the difficulties and challenges imposed on our residents and citizens, jurors, litigants, attorneys and any individual who comes to this building are immense,” Byrn wrote in his letter, which was hand delivered to White’s second-floor office, three floors below Byrn’s.

State inspectors shut down two of the public elevators and one of the two staff elevators last winter after they were damaged by flood waters in the basement of the downtown Kansas City courthouse. Subsequent water line breaks on upper floors damaged several courtrooms.

White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, says the county hopes to have the elevator that broke down on Thursday back up and running by Monday. In the meantime, the county is soliciting bids from contractors to fix and modernize all six elevators in the 85-year-old, Art Deco landmark at the corner of 12th and Oak streets.

This is the second time the project has gone out for bids. In the first round, only one company bid on the project, but that bid was thrown out when the contractor failed to meet minimum requirements for providing opportunities to minority, women and veteran-owned businesses.

A request for more proposals went out this week and are not due back until Sept. 24.

The Jackson County government said power issues were due to a water main break that had caused flooding in the basement. Water from the break was affecting electrical areas of the building.

The upgrades will likely cost several million dollars, officials say, and will have to be phased in, meaning the courthouse will not likely have full elevator service for months.

In the meantime, Byrn suggested in his letter that the county make arrangements to ensure the building has more than one public elevator operating at all times. That might include having an elevator service company representative on site full time, he said. Because if something isn’t done done, he said, temporary facilities might need to be found for judges to hear cases off site.

“I am sure there are other alternative for the County to consider and implement,” he wrote. “Whatever those remedies are, I need to know immediately.”

Byrn’s frustration with the slow pace of repairs is not limited to elevators. The pipe breaks damaged five courtrooms, which are still out of service. Judges assigned to those courtrooms are constantly shifting to other spaces within the building.

But that inconvenience pales compared to the inability of jurors and others to get where they are going on time because they are waiting on a working elevator.

“It is absolutely unbelievable and intolerable that the County is subjecting taxpayers to this situation,“ Byrn told White.

County spokeswoman Marshanna Smith issued a written statement Friday afternoon that said “the county executive shares the Presiding Judge’s concerns” and that White “has been advocating for the repair and modernization of the elevators since 2017.”

Smith added that White “will continue to pursue all options within his authority to ensure the necessary repairs are completed as quickly as possible.”

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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