The State Worker

Minor leak, more expense for ‘sick’ Board of Equalization building

Scaffolding skirts the Board of Equalization building in Sacramento in this June 2014 photo.
Scaffolding skirts the Board of Equalization building in Sacramento in this June 2014 photo. The Sacramento Bee

In the Board of Equalization tower’s soggy history, a recent second-floor leak was tiny: two ruined ceiling tiles, a few wet cubicles and some soaked carpet.

But this is a 24-story building in downtown Sacramento with 23 years of trouble, from floods, leaky walls and falling glass to toxic mold and trace amounts of cancer-causing chemicals. Three years ago the state settled a lawsuit that claimed the building made employees sick. Another $50 million lawsuit contends Equalization executives falsely told employees that the tower is safe.

So even relatively small events, including the Jan. 23 leak, spur Hygiene Technologies International Inc. into action. The Torrance-based firm has been in the tax-collecting agency’s headquarters since 2007, assessing air quality, monitoring for mold spores and watching for water intrusion. Its latest two-year agreement with Equalization pays the company up to $1 million through the end of June. Taxpayers foot the bill.

All the testing, checking, probing and monitoring over the years gives 450 N St. the distinction as “the most-tested building in state government,” said Department of General Services spokesman Brian Ferguson. “And it’s a safe building by every measurable trait we can find.”

That debate is still winding its way through the courts, but in the meantime taxpayers are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at minimum to keep the building running.

Equalization officials haven’t yet received the billing statement for the second-floor leak, but whenever something goes wrong, the charges can add up quickly.

On Super Bowl weekend in 2014, for example, a corroded pipe in the building’s core crumbled while a plumber was unclogging a bathroom drain. The break spilled noxious wastewater down two floors. Hygiene Tech’s charges to respond, according to invoices reviewed by The Bee, included $1,397.50 for 11 hours to monitor repair work and $341.25 for 11/2 hours spent on the telephone.

The bill for all of February 2014 came to nearly $45,000 for the Super Bowl weekend work and other, more routine tasks: investigating odors, preparing reports and taking random samples. Hygiene Tech charged another $5,175 to analyze samples it took.

The company keeps an employee on the premises full time. Under terms of the contract, it bills Equalization from $25 per hour for support staff to $175 per hour for the services of a certified industrial hygienist, according to the contract’s terms. Overtime costs more. Air sampling and other tests run up to $330 each.

Such services are common in commercial real estate as part of the occupational health and safety services industry that employs some 63,000 workers who earn a median salary of about $67,000 per year, federal statistics show.

“We’re in just about every sector,” said Tracy Parsons of the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, which certifies about 6,900 specialists in the field. “Anyplace there are people working, potential for an injury.”

Equalization, however, is the only state department to contract its own industrial-hygiene consultant. The rest use a firm on statewide retainer.

Department spokeswoman Venus Stromberg did not return a call on why Equalization went its own way, but the department’s website says the contract furthers its goal “to protect the health and welfare of its employees … the only way to do so is to participate in this process.”

Hygiene Tech officials did not respond to requests for an interview about the company’s state work.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.