Baltimore County public safety building has expensive glass problem

Every year dozens of glass panels "pop out" of the cube-like glass office structure on East Joppa Road that serves as Baltimore County's Public Safety Building.

It's a problem, county officials say, that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to fix.

On Monday, the County Council is expected to vote on a $1.85 million, five-year contract to replace hundreds of the broken panels on the 11-story building the county purchased in the late 1980s.

A top county official told council members last week that 200 of the building's 2,200 panels need to be replaced. The contract will cover replacing those panels — each one 5.5 feet tall and 5.5 feet wide — as well as those that break in the future.

"We get 50 to 75 panels popping out each year, so this is to replace and for maintenance on the panels that fall out during the year," county budget director Keith Dorsey told council members at a work session.

The issue drew concern from Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, who asked Dorsey: "You say they pop out on their own?"

"Wind, pressure causes them to pop out," Dorsey said.

He added that he didn't know of anyone being hurt by the damaged glass panels.

The panels that make up the shiny, mirrored face of the building have created expensive problems for taxpayers since at least the late 1990s — though county officials could not estimate how much the county has spent replacing the glass.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz expressed frustration with the Public Safety Building as far back as 2000, when he was a member of the County Council approving an earlier contract to replace damaged glass panels.

At the time, he called the building "an albatross."

The county bought the 11-story building in 1989 from Blue Cross Blue Shield, which had just moved to a new campus in Owings Mills. The building was seen as a way to solve the county's problem of a lack of office space for its police and fire departments.

The county paid $12.5 million for the building and the 7.3 acre property it sits on, then spent millions more removing asbestos, remodeling offices and making repairs. Renovations ended up taking several years, as two architecture firms hired by the county went out of business and the county changed some details of how the building would be used.

It wasn't long before the problems posed by the glass panels that give the building its distinctive look first confronted the county.

In mid-2000, the council approved a five-year, $200,000 contract with a company to repair and replace glass panels, which were breaking at a rate of dozens per year. At the time, the going rate was $895 per panel.

The county's outgoing public works chief at the time, Charles R. Olson, said: "My personal opinion is it's a poorly designed building."

Council members weren't thrilled at spending the money. In addition to Kamenetz's concerns, then-Councilman Wayne M. Skinner said: "That's a lot of money going out the window, literally."

The problem with the glass panels remains the same, but the price to fix them has gone up.

The contract before the council would pay Baltimore-based Caplan Bros. Inc. $1,615 for the glass and $1,700 for the labor for each panel that's replaced, with a higher labor cost for emergency replacements. Caplan will be required to replace at least two panels at a time.

The company has a lot of panels to replace. The county hasn't had a company on contract for the building since 2014. That's when the last contractor, Minnesota-based Harmon Contract Glazing, declined to renew its contract after just one year.

Harmon no longer does replacement glass work, instead focusing on new construction, said Molly Skoog, the company's marketing and communications manager.

Since 2014, the backlog of panels needing replacement has grown to 200.

County officials said they put out a request for bids for the contract — and initially no one responded. So the county negotiated a deal with Caplan Bros., which had the 2000 contract. The company also does repairs and glazes glass at other county buildings, mainly the county jail in Towson.

Under terms of the new contract, the county will pay Caplan up to $700,000 for the first year, with a potential extension of up to five years and $1.85 million.

At last week's work session, some council members shook their heads as they heard the explanation for the $1.85 million expenditure, but none questioned the need for the contract.

Kamenetz's opinion of the building hasn't changed, according to his spokeswoman.

"The county executive has never been a fan of the building because of these maintenance concerns, but he is committed to maintaining it," said spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.

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