Baltimore County has stopped paying rent at a Towson office tower where several dozen state and county employees have complained of breathing problems and illnesses.
A leaky roof flooded parts of the 11th floor of the Investment Building this week, adding to a long list of maintenance problems that building managers have struggled to address for a year. Among the offices damaged was that of Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, the county's highest-paid employee.
"We're mad. We're going to withhold rent," said Robert J. Barrett, a top assistant to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
Barrett also indicated that the county is more closely examining the idea of permanently relocating the staff. "It's an option we are strongly looking at," he said.
The county pays more than $1 million a year in rent for Investment Building space. The monthly payments of roughly $90,000 to owner A.M.G. Realty Partners of New York will be placed in escrow, Barrett said.
The attorney for A.M.G. Realty could not be reached for comment yesterday.
About 700 county and state employees work in the building, near the Towson roundabout. Many of them have complained for years about poor ventilation and possible mold and fungal contamination that they say has caused ailments ranging from headaches to lung disease.
At least two workers have resigned, saying the building made them so ill that they could no longer perform their jobs.
In recent months, county officials have asked state and federal occupational safety regulators to examine building conditions, and have hired a doctor to conduct a survey of employee health complaints. The inspectors said that the Investment Building did not meet criteria for sick-building syndrome, but that employee concerns should not be ignored.
Building managers have said that a $3 million ventilation upgrade now under way could alleviate many concerns.
While not conceding that the building has caused health problems, Barrett said too much staff time has been spent moving offices and monitoring repair projects.
"There is a lot of productivity that I believe we are losing in that building," he said.
Employees said they were thrilled by the county's latest actions.
"It is heartening that the county is finally looking for permanent replacement office space," said Marina Eddy, 44, a computer administrator who resigned in June because of chronic asthma. "This is a positive step, but it needs to happen quickly for all concerned."