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A trip to magistrate court really stinks

February 20, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

These are the weapons being used to fight an invisible, but not undetectable, intruder in Berkeley County Magistrate Court: Scented candles, fans, air fresheners, a dehumidifier and perfume.

The culprit is a foul, sewer-like smell, and the victims are the dozen-plus court employees and the hundreds of people who come to court every day for a variety of reasons.

For several years, the smell has been sporadically present, but it has become worse recently, according to Magistrate Joan Bragg.

"It makes you sick to your stomach," she said.

County Administrator Deborah Hammond said a plumber had been scheduled to come in Monday to do a "peppermint test" - used to determine the source of a smell. Heavy snow prevented his visit, which will be rescheduled for an upcoming Saturday, she said.

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Hammond said she believes the odor is sewer gas, which she said was once a problem in her building - a block away from magistrate court - and still resurfaces in the back of the building occasionally. She said the odor seems to infiltrate older buildings.

"Trust me, I know exactly what they're experiencing," Hammond said. "We're working on the problem."

On Wednesday afternoon, the odor was worse in the nearly-underground basement portion of the courthouse, and worse yet in Magistrate Harry Snow's office.

Snow had a fan blowing, a butter creme-scented candle burning and, when nobody was in his office, a loud dehumidifier pumping.

"It's terrible. You wouldn't want to work in a place like this," he said. "After a while, you can even smell it on your clothes.

"Your food even tastes like this."

Magistrate Court is housed in what once was a school, along John Street.

Most agree the smell most likely stems from human waste.

"I guess it's sewer gas," Bragg said. "I know one thing, it's given me a headache."

Two magistrate offices and a courtroom are in the building's basement, where on the ceiling exposed wires and pipes are visible. Along with Snow, Magistrate Carlton DeHaven's office is also in the basement.

DeHaven's assistant, Sue McGown, had an aerosol can of air freshener on hand by her computer and was burning a black cherry-scented candle Wednesday. Using the candle, she said, requires a bit of nerve because of the threat of gas.

"I'm scared to death to light a match," McGown said.

After the onset of a headache, which she said started after she came to work, McGown took a couple of aspirins during her lunch break.

McGown said that while she can close the doors to her office and keep the bad odor at bay, people waiting in the hallway to pay a ticket, talk to a magistrate, attend court or fill out paperwork have no choice. On an average day, 200 or more people enter the courthouse and, recently, some people waiting for court covered their faces to ward off the stench, McGown said.

"It makes the whole place look bad," McGown said.

Worst of all, Snow and others agreed, is that the state pays Berkeley County a significant amount of money to use the building.

Hammond said the rent is $50,000 a year, which she said does not even cover heating costs.

For that price, a decent-smelling building should be available, and employees should be able to park near it, McGown said. Magistrates have reserved spaces in front of the building, but other employees must park elsewhere, McGown said.

Also, it seems as if a heating system that costs more than $50,000 a year to operate wants to make itself heard. As Bragg discussed the odor, the building's furnace started clanging around her, sounding like a baseball bat hitting metal close to one's ear.

All of the problems make opening a judicial center in the former Blue Ridge Outlet Center more and more necessary, Hammond said. Extensive renovation work is needed before that will happen, though, the Berkeley County Commissioners have said.

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