WILLIAMSON - With the current cold front that has hit the local area bringing frigid temperatures and chilling winds, anyone without a source of heat will be the first to tell you it creates a bad situation for everyone involved.
When the location affected is a public building that houses several offices, including one that is judicial in nature, it creates troublesome issues that are on an entirely different level.
For the past week, the heating system in the Annex Building in downtown Williamson that serves as home to the Williamson Public Library, the Mingo County Health Department and the Mingo County Magistrate Court, has been inoperable. Portable heating devices were brought in to try to keep the temperatures comfortable enough to continue business as usual. According to those who are employed in these locations, this temporary fix is simply like placing a Band-Aid on a large, bleeding wound - it just doesn’t work.
Magistrates Pam Newsome and Dee Sidebottom, along with Magistrate Clerk Terry Sanders, addressed the Mingo County Commission during its 9 a.m. meeting on Wednesday, speaking of the cold temperatures they were forced to work in and of the many inconveniences it has created not only for themselves, but for the public who have need of their services.
“We’ve been without heat for a week,” said Newsome. “We were provided with some portable heaters but every time you plug them in, it creates a problem with the breakers. We had no lights in our hallway this morning after turning on the heaters.”
Newsome said the kerosene heaters that had been furnished by the commission could not be used because of the fumes they emit that were making employees ill.
“I can’t handle the fumes from the kerosene,” said Newsome. “It gave me a terrible headache.”
The portable heaters cannot be left on throughout the evening and night for safety reasons, so when employees arrive at their offices each morning, the temperatures are so cold you can see your breath.
“We have portable heaters in the courtroom, but they hardly help at all,” said Sidebottom. “It’s freezing in our offices and the temperatures are supposed to drop into the single digits over the next few days, so I can only imagine how cold it will be inside.”
Johnny Dillon, the maintenance supervisor for the County Commission, explained that the pipes are original to the building (1919), and said the boiler was installed in either 1964 or ‘65. This fact in itself creates a huge problem because the part that is damaged beyond repair will have to be built since it is no longer an item you can purchase on the market. Dillon said it would be approximately one week before the company completing the repairs would receive it.
“There’s no way of fixing this on a temporary basis or rerouting the pipes around the one damaged?” asked Commissioner John Mark Hubbard, who was replaced as president on Wednesday by Commissioner Greg “Hootie” Smith.
“No, there’s no way to get it up and running until the part arrives,” Dillon said.
The commissioners offered to allow the magistrates to utilize the commission courtroom for arraignments and hearings, but they were told that was not possible because of everything being done electronically, and the set-up for the video arraignments is stationary, not mobile.
“We will accommodate you in any way we can; we understand the conditions you are working under right now are less than desirable,” Smith said.
Smith then requested that the magistrates contact the state Supreme Court to see what, if anything, could be done and approved that would allow them to work out of another location. In the meantime, the commission sent three of its maintenance employees that specialize in heating and cooling to the Annex Building to check the wiring and make any repairs necessary to allow for more portable heaters to be used.
“When the elevator was being replaced in our building, they told us it would be a six-week job … well, it took 19 weeks to be completed. I hope that’s not the case with this repair,” said Newsome. “While the work was being performed on the elevator, the technicians told us the wiring in the building was in terrible shape and that they were surprised it had not burned to the ground.”
“That’s not a comforting thought.”
“When you come in to work in the mornings, it is so cold you can see your breath,” said Sanders. “It takes quite a while for those small heaters to make a difference in the temperature, and it never does reach a level you would consider comfortable.”
Employees of the Mingo County Health Department were also continuing to work, but they were in their jackets and gloves due to the cold.
“I’ve got medical gloves on under my driving gloves and my hands are still like ice,” said Vicki Hackney, who is employed with the Health Department. Her supervisor, Cathy Haeden, told the Daily News that her fear was that the cold could effect vaccinations stored in their office, that have to be kept at a steady temperature.
Jennifer Hatfield, the Mingo County librarian, said that the lack of heat was preventing locals from utilizing the services they offer, saying those who did come in were only there for a few moments.
“It’s bad when it feels as cold inside as it does outside,” said Hatfield. “I’m hopeful this isn’t a problem we have to contend with much longer.”
Later in the day on Wednesday, the Williamson Fire Department was dispatched to the building after smoke was reported coming from an outlet where a portable heater was in use inside Sidebottom’s office. The device was unplugged and a thorough inspection was completed by the firefighters, who deemed it safe.
“We are working to get this problem repaired as soon as possible, and we offer our apologizes to the magistrates and other county employees who work there, as well as the public,” said Commissioner Smith. “We are here to assist in whatever way we can.”