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May 18, 2014

Crumbling Capitol a dangerous place — not just politically

OKLAHOMA CITY — On most mornings, employees of the state House of Representatives arrive for work in a corner of the Capitol’s basement to the familiar, musty smell of moist carpet, sewage and decay.

Last Monday, in addition to their office’s odor, they discovered a four-pound chunk of concrete that had plummeted with such velocity that it took out ceiling tiles and smashed apart on a desk.

A piece of rebar that held the concrete in place for nearly 100 years had unexpectedly let go of its grasp over the weekend. The victim was the desk belonging to Jason Warfe, a House

communications specialist.

“Had he been in here when this fell, it would have been a bad situation,” said John Estus, spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which maintains the Capitol. “We want to provide a safe work environment, a pleasant work environment, and right now we’re nearing a point where we can’t provide those things.”

During a brief tour of the Capitol’s basement offices this week, Estus warned reporters to keep their ears peeled for the sound of more falling concrete and be ready to jump out of the way.

Each year, Estus’ department spends an average of $677,000 on non-routine maintenance on the Capitol. They are makeshift patches that keep water flowing through continually rupturing and clogging pipes, ancient cloth-covered wires from catching fire, concrete from falling, and systems including the air conditioning, which sometimes fails unexpectedly, running.

Plans for $160 million in repairs sputtered in the past two sessions of the Legislature, in part because of squabbling over price and prudent spending. But this latest chunk of concrete might have crashed apart the logjam as legislators appear close to a compromise plan to fix the building that is crumbling around them.

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