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Allegheny County court system struggling to cope with closed building

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Nate Smallwood | Tribune Review
Firefighters work to contain a fire at the former Macy's on Smithfield Street in Downtown Pittsburgh on Saturday, July 30, 2016. The Allegheny Building, which lost power because of the fire, is on the right.

Allegheny County’s court system was short on space even before it had to make room for 75 employees displaced by the sudden closure of the Allegheny Building, President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said Wednesday.

“It’s created a lot of havoc, and we’re trying to keep providing the services we’ve always provided,” he said. “It’s a horrendous situation.”

A fire Saturday in the Macy’s/Kaufmann’s building knocked out power to the adjacent Allegheny Building by damaging the electrical components that power both buildings. An inspection Tuesday by the city’s fire bureau determined that the 19-story Allegheny Building’s fire suppression system is not working.

Finding room for 75 people has been difficult, Manning said.

“Obviously, it’s going to slow things down and create problems,” he said.

The larger issue is that the court system’s offices are spread out around the county because there’s not enough space at the courthouse, Manning said.

“We need more space to provide people with the justice they expect and require,” he said.

The sudden closure displaced several offices in the Family Court and the Office of Conflict Counsel, which represents indigent people in criminal cases when the Public Defender’s Office can’t.

While the county has provided them with alternate space, there aren’t many rooms that have enough phone jacks and power outlets for 17 lawyers, said Richard Narvin, chief counsel for the Office of Conflict Counsel.

Then there are the records — 14 stories up in a building with no power for the elevators.

“The few times we get in (the building), the stuff has to be hand-carried down from the 14th floor,” Narvin said.

The office has one working landline, and Narvin hopes to have another soon, he said. It also has 12 computers.

“We’re open for business,” Narvin said. “… Exclusive of the stress it’s inflicted on some of us, it’s been going extremely well.”

The docketing office that holds records for the Family Court is also in the Allegheny Building. So far, that hasn’t caused a delay in court hearings, said Court Administrator Linda Kelly.

“We’ve been able to do the business of the court because we have been able to access some of our records,” she said.

The court hasn’t received much information from the building’s owner or management company, so it’s difficult to assess a long-range impact, Kelly said.

The building’s owner, King Penguin Opportunity Fund III LLC of New York City, issued a news release that said it doesn’t know how long electrical repairs will take.

The building will reopen when the power is restored, and the company will post a security person on every other floor until the building’s fire suppression systems are operational, the release said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or [email protected].

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