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Air conditioner debate heats up

Prothonotary’s office asks commissioners to provide window air conditioners.

Prothonotary’s Office civil clerk Ruth Rauschkolb uses a fan to cool her workspace Friday. Prothonotary Carolee Medico Olenginski wants the commissioners to supply temporary air conditioning units for the office.

CLARK VAN ORDEN/THE TIMES LEADER

Luzerne County must provide window air conditioners to the prothonotary’s office until the courthouse cooling system is restored, the office’s solicitor Sam Stretton said in a letter Friday to county Commissioner Chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla.

Stretton said temperatures have been in the 90-degree range some days this week, creating a “very hostile and hazardous working condition.”

He said he advised Prothonotary Carolee Medico Olenginski to immediately order window air conditioners in the office “so the employees can have an environment where they can do some reasonable work without facing illness or sickness,” the letter said.

Stretton said Petrilla has “threatened” that Medico Olenginski would be responsible for the cost, even though commissioners have a “responsibility” to fund the air conditioners.

His letter seeks an immediate meeting and permission to order the window air conditioner units.

“Otherwise, more drastic measures will have to be taken,” Stretton wrote. “The county cannot place its employees at risk. Further, the county could have significant liability for doing so.”

Petrilla said air conditioning should be fully restored to the building in a few weeks, and commissioners won’t authorize temporary air conditioners.

“We’re not going to go out and spring for air conditioners for a two- or three-week period. If she does this on her own, she will be responsible for paying for it herself. We’re not going to use tax dollars for a temporary fix,” Petrilla said.

Petrilla also challenged Stretton’s use of the word “threatened” in his letter. Petrilla said she sent an email to county Controller Walter Griffith, which was copied to Medico Olenginski and others, asking him to “kindly advise” the prothonotary of the proper procedure for incurring county expenses.

“I would hate for Mrs. Medico to be held personally responsible for unauthorized obligations she contracts on her own,” Petrilla wrote in the email to Griffith.

Petrilla wrote the email in response to Medico Olenginski’s email that she would hire a contractor to install temporary free-standing air conditioning units and send at-risk employees home with pay if workers are “once again subjected to an extremely hot office.”

Building and ground workers arrived at 4 a.m. Thursday to open all windows to draw in cool night air and push out the hot air, Petrilla said.

Contractors could not complete work on the air conditioning sooner because they’re replacing 12 air handlers that are used to both heat and cool the century-old building. The heat had to be kept on until the end of April, which didn’t leave enough time to finish the work before the air conditioning was needed, officials said. The work is part of a $2.2 million heating and air-conditioning rehabilitation primarily funded by federal stimulus money aimed at increasing energy efficiency.

Workers are free to leave work if they are uncomfortable with the temperatures, though they won’t be paid unless they use personal time, Petrilla said, noting that commissioners are united in that decision.

“That’s why employees were given personal days. What are we going to do – pay 1,300 employees to go home?” Petrilla said.

Another air conditioning controversy

The Luzerne County Courthouse had air conditioning when the courthouse was built in 1909, but it only worked for about a day, according to news archives.

County officials had searched the country for an “air engineer” and enlarged the subbasement to make room for the machinery, fans and copper tubing needed to cool the building. The system ended up costing $40,000.

Engineers gathered when the first hot day arrived, marveling at the “glorious rush of cool air from the ducts.” However, workers arrived the next day to find their offices and papers soaking wet, prompting commissioners to scrap the air conditioning portion of the system.

Air conditioning was successfully installed decades later.

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