In Wrangell, the local police department, fire department, courthouse, DMV and U.S. customs — are sheltered under one roof. And that roof is — literally — falling apart. The city is working to patch together a solution before it’s too late.
At the beginning of the year, the sprinkler system in the public safety building went haywire. The cold snap froze and broke one of the pipes, causing some flooding.
“So when you walked out here it was like raining, you had an indoor rainforest,” says Thomas Radke, Wrangell’s police chief. His department bore the brunt of the damage. He shows three rooms that had to be cleared out. The garage is in rough shape too. A construction crew just came in and repairs are underway.
But despite all that… he insists the department is functioning.
“Everyone’s still working. Not a big deal we’re able to work around it,” says Radke.
Not everyone feels that way. With mold forming from water damage, at least one fire department administrator has started working from home.
In 2017, the courthouse was closed for two months because of mold. One room in the court clerk office is still under wraps.
The city says it’s tested the air and it’s safe to inhabit the building. But the roof is letting moisture seep into the exterior walls, something that is compromising the mainframe of the building.
“You can see how deteriorated the paint is, the siding is also pretty soft,” says Capital Facilities Director Amber Al-Haddad outside the building.
The roof has a membrane barrier to protect it from the elements. But Al-Haddad says it wasn’t installed properly — and that was more than 30 years ago.
Based on an engineering consultant’s numbers, the city put out a bid for someone to fix the roof and sidings for about $500,000. That’s about how much the city has set aside for this project.
But Al-Haddad suspects the work could cost twice that. Hearing back from contractors, she says they’re reluctant to take on the mold issues.
“That’s why this project is so expensive,” Al-Haddad says. “With mold remediation you have to be very careful with the way you handle the materials so you don’t spread the spores throughout the building.”
The city has been out looking for funding. It applied for a federal Community Development Block Grant in 2017 to develop just the fire hall portion. The city didn’t get the grant. A year later it was awarded the same grant — for a new fire truck.
While the public safety building is a one-stop shop for the town’s most essential services, the various uses makes it difficult to pitch to a specific funding source.
The city made a roundabout request for tribal law enforcement funds totaling just under $600,000. It called on the local tribe, Wrangell Cooperative Association, to submit that request to the state for a federal Department of Justice grant.
The tribe and city are still waiting.
While the search for funding continues, elected officials are debating whether to renovate the older building or scrap it for a brand new facility.
“There’s a tipping point because you can put out a ton of money in renovations and still have structural issues down the road,” says Mayor Steve Prysunka. And he notes this public safety complex is one of many buildings needing repairs.
“There’s just a ton of infrastructure issues and a small community like ours, we just can’t tax people to meet this need, we need to find grants and other ways of getting stuff done,” he says.
The Wrangell Assembly is poised to name its public safety building as its top capital project priority. This move is in the hopes of securing state assistance. Should it become available.
City officials have thrown out a ballpark number, that tackling all of Wrangell’s deferred building maintenance and revamping the water distribution system could cost $250,000,000.