Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Critical Condition: Harrisburg’s first responders toil as their building decays around them.

Drippy ceiling tiles, crumbling cement and a faint pong of marijuana—all are part of a day’s work at the Harrisburg Public Safety Building.

The space housing the police and fire bureaus, located on the first block of Walnut Street downtown, has reached the end of its natural lifespan, according to Mayor Eric Papenfuse. The city recently decided not to invest more money in the building and is actively scouting relocation sites.

But until the city identifies an alternative location for almost 200 employees, its first responders—and the administrative staff that supports them—will continue to work in what Papenfuse calls “substandard” conditions.

The vast majority of the building’s employees are police officers and parking enforcement agents who spend their days off site, said Joni Willingham, Harrisburg’s human resources director. Almost 30 administrators, including police and fire chiefs, work there full time.

What’s it like to report for duty every day?

“It’s the equivalent of going on vacation and coming home to a dirty house,” Capt. Gabriel Olivera, the Police Bureau’s public information officer, said during a recent tour of the building.

Small Investments

Mattea Macri has watched the building deteriorate during the 33 years that she’s worked for the bureau.

“It’s dirty,” she said. “There’s problems everywhere—leaks, one room is hot and another is cold.”

The leaks, which manifest as brown rings and waterlogged blisters in the acoustic ceiling tiles, are most numerous in the detective offices on the building’s third floor. Gaps in the ceiling mark where tiles were removed for water damage, and employees use everything from trash cans to coffee cups to catch the runoff.

Olivera says that leaks in the third-floor forensics lab and second-floor records office have never compromised police procedures. Harrisburg police only use their forensics space to run fingerprints and send all other lab work to a state-run facility. And Olivera said that the police department has never lost paper records to water damage.

What’s more hazardous, he said, is the ceiling in the basement parking garage, where crumbling cement and drywall has fallen and damaged personal vehicles.

The building also circulates heat poorly, leaving some rooms uncomfortably hot and others frigid. In the winter, some offices have recorded temperatures as low as 63 degrees, Olivera said.

Ventilation also partially accounts for the faint odor of marijuana in the first and second floors. Olivera said it’s a product of seized drugs stored in the first-floor evidence room. Officers staffing that room recently had standing fans directing the stench outside.

Though the city has decided not to make capital improvements to the building, it still will make small investments in repairs and maintenance, according to city Engineer Wayne Martin.

Olivera identified some areas that have seen recent upgrades, including a hallway where carpet was replaced after the previous carpet became “dangerous.”

But many of the recent enhancements were completed with donated goods and labor. A local Eagle Scout refinished an interview room on the third floor. Down the hall, volunteers from the Rotary Club renovated and furnished a family waiting room.

In some cases, officers take maintenance into their own hands. Olivera pointed out two offices on the first floor where sergeants replaced flooring, applied fresh paint and installed donated desks.

“They just got tired of how it looked,” he said.

When asked if he thought that the workspace conditions affected officer morale, Olivera answered with a definitive “yes.” But he declined to elaborate and insisted that officers would not allow their work quarters to affect public safety.

“In spite of all this, our officers come in every day to do the work they signed up to do,” Olivera said.

Too Big

Olivera hopes that the Police Bureau will downsize its offices in its next move. He said that the force employed close to 200 officers when it moved into the building in 1981. Today, the full-complement rank is limited by Act 47, a state statute that governs financially distressed municipalities. The police force has a capacity of 157 officers but currently operates with 142.

Put simply, the building is too big for the current force, Olivera said. He thinks smaller quarters would alleviate the burden of upkeep and repairs, especially since the city has reduced its maintenance staff under Act 47, he said.

Papenfuse attributed the current condition of the building to years of neglect under former Mayor Steve Reed’s administration. The city decided in 2015 that it would no longer make capital improvements to the building.

Martin, the city engineer, defined a capital improvement as a repair, such as a roof replacement, that would extend the life of the structure.

Once the city relocates its public safety employees, it will likely seek out a lease agreement with a private sector company, Papenfuse said.

Under that agreement, a private company would bear the cost of renovations in exchange for a nominal rent fee from the city.

City Council recently rejected a similar proposal with Eastern University, a Christian college that wished to renovate and rent space in the City Government Center’s unfinished basement.

Papenfuse is skeptical that the city will find many bidders for the basement, but thinks it will have more success fielding proposals for the Public Safety Building. Since it’s a complete, free-standing structure, companies will have more options for how to renovate and use it, he said.

That’s good news to Fire Bureau Chief Brian Enterline.

“This is probably the best building in the city, to be repurposed into something else,” Enterline said.

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