Mold, water damage plague Wrangell’s city services building, with no solution in sight

A construction crew is taking care of repairs in the U.S. Customs office of Wrangell’s public safety building in 2020. (June Leffler/ KSTK)

In Wrangell, the police department, fire department, courthouse, motor vehicle office and U.S. customs are all housed under one roof. And that roof is falling apart.

At the beginning of the year, the sprinkler system in the public safety building went haywire. The cold snap froze and broke one of the pipes, causing some flooding.

“So when you walked out here it was like raining. You had an indoor rainforest,” said Thomas Radke, Wrangell’s police chief. His department bore the brunt of the damage. Three rooms had to be cleared out. The garage is in rough shape, too. A construction crew just started on repairs.

Radke insists the department is functioning fine. 

“Everyone’s still working. Not a big deal. We’re able to work around it,” he said.

But not everyone feels that way. With mold forming from water damage, at least one fire department administrator has started working from home.

In 2017, the courthouse was closed for two months because of mold. One room in the court clerk’s office is still under wraps.

The city said it has tested the air and it’s safe to inhabit the building. But the roof is letting moisture seep into the exterior walls, which compromise the mainframe of the building.

“You can see how deteriorated the paint is, the siding is also pretty soft,” said Capital Facilities Director Amber Al-Haddad, describing the the building’s exterior.

The roof has a membrane barrier to protect it from the elements. But Al-Haddad said it wasn’t installed properly — and that was more than 30 years ago. 

Based on an engineering consultant’s numbers, the city put out a bid for someone to fix the roof and siding for about $500,000. That’s about how much the city has set aside for this project. 

But Al-Haddad suspects the work could cost twice that. Contractors tell her they’re reluctant to take on the mold issues.

“That’s why this project is so expensive,” Al-Haddad said. “With mold remediation you have to be very careful with the way you handle the materials so you don’t spread the spores throughout the building.”

The city has been looking for funding. It applied for a federal Community Development Block Grant in 2017 to fix just the fire hall portion. The city didn’t get the grant. A year later, it did win a grant from that program, but it was for a new fire truck.

While the public safety building is a one-stop shop for the town’s essential government services, the various uses makes it difficult to pitch to a specific funding source. 

The city made an indirect request for tribal law enforcement funds totaling nearly $600,000. It asked the local tribe, Wrangell Cooperative Association, to submit that request to the state for a federal Department of Justice grant.

The tribe and city are still waiting. 

While the search for funding continues, elected officials are debating whether to renovate the older building or scrap it for a brand new facility.

“There’s a tipping point because you can put out a ton of money in renovations and still have structural issues down the road,” said Mayor Steve Prysunka. And he notes the public safety complex is one of many buildings that need repairs.

“There’s just a ton of infrastructure issues and a small community like ours, we just can’t tax people to meet this need. We need to find grants and other ways of getting stuff done,” he said.

The Wrangell Assembly is poised to name the public safety building as the top priority on its wish list for state capital improvement funds.

City officials say tackling all of Wrangell’s deferred building maintenance and revamping the water distribution system could cost $250 million.