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TEMPERS RISE AS ELEVATOR WON'T

A courthouse breakdown is a logistical disaster.

On a recent Monday at the downtown courthouse annex, an elevator broke down.

To the uninitiated, that might seem trivial. But at the annex, such an event is nothing short of a logistical disaster.

With only two lifts left to shuttle people to six stories of criminal courtrooms, the wait dragged on. Folks stabbed the up and down buttons in frustration, crossed their arms and cursed. One group of jurors rode with bailiffs on an elevator typically reserved for inmates.

Taking the stairs wasn't an option - they're closed to the public except in emergencies, and being late for a hearing doesn't count.

"This is crazy," a large man grumbled as the doors of a packed elevator shut in his face.

And inside each elevator, warning stickers were plastered over state safety certificates that expired more than a year ago.

County and court officials have already taken notice of the problems with the annex elevators, which prompted an average of 16 service calls per week last year. But a planned fix will make things worse before better.

"It's been a long-standing kind of nightmare," said Nancy Yanez, the chief deputy court administrator.

In the next few months, a contractor is expected to begin rebuilding the three elevators, which were installed about two decades ago. The elevators will be shut down one at a time for approximately 90 days each.

The county, which maintains the courthouse annex, eventually plans to erect a public staircase, Yanez said.

As for those orange warning stickers?

They went up in recent weeks after an inspector noticed that the elevators' certificates had expired in August 2007.

County officials didn't know the inspection was overdue, said Don Harwig, director of the Hillsborough facilities management division. With 315 buildings to maintain, the county hires outside firms to help keep up. The firm in charge of the courthouse let things slide, Harwig said.

State records indicate that the annex elevators failed inspection on Sept. 9, partly because of problems with the emergency telephone system. Harwig said a new company was hired to maintain the elevators, and repairs are under way.

"The elevators are safe," he said. "There were some minor things the inspector wanted fixed before he would certify them."

So far, the county has not been fined, said Alexis Antonacci, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Harwig said his staff will keep a closer eye on contractors charged with keeping safety licenses up to date.

Until the finicky annex elevators get rebuilt, visitors may want to heed Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder's advice for scoring a ride:

"Push down to go up."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

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