CINCINNATI — Some Cincinnati city mechanics are fearful of worsening conditions at the municipal fleet garage, particularly chunks of falling concrete and a possible floor collapse.
WCPO has reported on the near 100-year-old garage off Central Avenue several times since 2016, yet no major repairs have been done, mechanics say, and there is no funding in the city’s current budget to replace the facility where thousands of city vehicles are fixed each year, from fire engines to dump trucks.
As city leaders prepare to release next year’s proposed budget on Thursday, many mechanics hope it includes funding for safer working conditions at the garage.
“The stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, and the water leaking through the floors at all times. Chunks of concrete falling, and you see the rebar sticking through the floor,” said Jim Baird, a mechanic who works in the garage basement and worries the ceiling will collapse on him.
“It’s a matter of time before somebody pulls (a truck) in and it goes through … it’s going to end up in the basement, and who is going to be below it?" Baird asked. “Am I going to be beneath it?”
Their frustration is made worse by the city’s plan to add solar panels to the roof of the aging garage.
Dave Funk, president of Local Union 190 of mostly city mechanics, said the city’s green initiatives are adding insult to the situation at the fleet garage, including solar panels and possibly adding charging stations to support the city’s transition to more electric vehicles.
“This building isn’t designed for that. It’s not even designed to hold the weight difference between cars back in the 30s, 40s 50s and trucks compared to today’s trucks,” Funk said. “They’re wasting money on this building that’s not worth it.”
Interim City Manager John Curp and Mayor Aftab Pureval did not respond to a request for an interview.
City spokesman Rocky Merz said in a statement that a solar array will be added to half of the fleet garage, with work possibly beginning in November. He described the project as, “a re-cover which is essentially a new roof with a 20-year warranty.”
Even Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Cramerding, who is a passionate about improving the city’s infrastructure, questioned the reasonableness of a solar project at such an old facility.
“Putting solar panels on a structure that’s not safe, that’s falling down, is probably backwards,” Cramerding said. “We should have probably invested into the infrastructure first and built a new building that was solar and electric vehicle capable.”
Cramerding wants to refocus city leaders on the backlog of deferred maintenance at city buildings, including the fleet garage.
The city has dozens of outdated buildings from fire stations to recreation centers. Add that to the cost to fix the city’s outdated roads and bridges, crumbling staircases and sidewalks, and the budget gap to fix old infrastructure will balloon to nearly $500 million in five years, Cramerding said.
“City hall, city council, the administration has been put on notice so if something unfortunate happens, which we all hope and pray does not, but if something does happen, we as a city government have to take responsibility,” Cramerding said. “We’re talking about the garage and we’re talking about other instances where we know that our city employees do not have the equipment and facilities necessary to do their jobs safely.”
In past years the quiet deterioration of city buildings was rarely discussed at budget hearings. Historically, most citizens asked for funding for human service agencies, and elected leaders focused on high-profile spending, such as hiring new police recruits.
Cramerding is hopeful that this year is different. He’s already heard from concerned firefighters. He wants to see city workers and union officials attend public budget hearings to advocate for their own needs: safe working conditions and functional equipment.
In theory, all nine council members have already pledged to support infrastructure. They signed onto Cramerding’s motion in March to spend the remaining $44 million in federal COVID relief funds to plug future budget deficits and repair infrastructure.
“We’re entering this budget process and we’re going to have a lot of people who want to spend money outside of city hall,” Cramerding said. “I hope that I’ll be advocating to keep the dollars inside for basic city services and I hope other citizens who value that will speak up as well.”
City leaders admit there is no money in the current budget to replace the fleet garage, which was last estimated to cost $36 million.
“However, the administration has and will continue to work within available resources to address the most immediate issues as they arise,” according to Merz.
City officials admit “there have been a few incidents where concrete has spalled from the slab and fallen,” at the garage, but the damage was patched and deteriorated pieces removed, according to Merz.
But the six current and former garage workers who spoke to WCPO described their anxiety.
“We literally need nets there to catch the concrete because that’s what I fear most is that the concrete is going to fall and hit somebody,” said Steve Schwartz, crew chief in the tire shop of the fleet garage. “And there’s big fissures that I keep an eye on that seem to grow.”
Antony Towe described a similar scenario during the years he worked in the tire shop, before recently moving to the city’s parks department.
“We’d come in on mornings and there’d be a big chunk of concrete or something that fell out of the ceiling and was laying partially on top of a Ford Focus. Some on the ground. Your toolboxes are right there,” Towe said.
They and other mechanics describe other problems at the garage:
- Leaking water running into electric panels
- Rusting concrete rebar
- Original windows, many cracked
- Temperatures that rise to 120 degrees in the summer inside the unairconditioned garage
- Temperatures so cold in the winter that they must wear winter coats while working inside
- City trucks that do not empty their loads before entering portions of the garage with strict weight limits, despite rules.
- Crowded conditions for fire engines which cannot extend ladders fully for repair.
The city’s facilities management office had a structural analysis done on the garage in 2021 and based on those recommendations, is moving ahead with a project to fix the floor soon, Merz said.
“Specifically, there is a gap between the required capacity to support axle loads corresponding to the city’s maintenance fleet versus available structural capacity,” Merz wrote in a statement. “Fleet services is aware of the current allowable wheel load limits and the need to adhere to them.”
But mechanics say that drivers of city dump trucks or salt trucks or other loaded vehicles often ignore those rules.
“They are told not to come in with a load in. And they still come in. Is that truck going to fall through the floor? Who knows, that floor is not designed to handle a truck with a load,” Baird said. “Yes, they hurry up and pull it off the floor, but its a matter of time before somebody pulls it in and it goes through.”
The city is planning to put bids out for a $1.1 million concrete restoration project in July as the first step toward repairing the garage floor, Merz wrote.
A 2015 city facilities assessment report warned of possible failures in old buildings, specifically a “potential collapse” of the floor of the Department of Public Service’s municipal garage could happen “within four years.”
But in a 2019 tour, deputy public services director Joel Koopman told WCPO that the garage floor has been inspected and is safe.
“It’s structurally safe as long as you stay within the load requirements,” Koopman said in 2019. “To put it simply -- this structure wasn’t built to handle the weights of the vehicles we have today.”
For their part, many mechanics would like city leaders to see the condition of the fleet garage for themselves. Many say they’ve never seen a mayor, city manager or council member visit the facility in the past 10 years.
“I would like to see all the city leaders down there, the mayor, everybody. Take a walk through, see the conditions. See what we’re looking at,” Baird said.
“Yeah, invite them to work a shift down there with us,” said Jake Anderson, who worked as mechanic at the fleet garage before recently moving to the Metropolitan Sewer District.
When WCPO asked about recent visits by city leaders, Merz said that Pureval visited the fleet garage earlier this year and Curp took a tour in January.