MOUNT VERNON — Executing a search warrant Wednesday, members of the Dilapidated Buildings Commission got a look inside the former middle school on North Mulberry Street for the first time in several years. The visit did not seem to resolve any issues of how to proceed with charges against owner John Bechtel.
The purpose of the warrant was to check on the security of the building and see whether animals, birds or humans are accessing it.
“They didn’t find anything major,” said Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis. “They did point out some security issues that needed to be upgraded. “I think Mr. Bechtel pretty much agreed things could be improved in those areas.”
Mavis, who did not go on the tour, but who spoke with members of the commission afterward, said “It looked like somebody came in and spruced things up.”
Brian Benick, who represents the health department on the commission, agreed.
“[Mr. Bechtel] knew we were coming, so he did clean up,” said Benick.
However, he said, there were still some problems, including bird feathers on the floor and a pile of debris in the middle of the gymnasium. According to Benick, Bechtel is purposely leaving the debris there to use it as fill when he raises the floor.
“We saw many possible points of entry for birds,” said Benick. “It was readily apparent he had tried to fix things up. ... But there are many openings still there.”
Those openings include 2-inch holes in screens through which birds can gain access. Benick said Bechtel has a cat in the building for bird control. In addition, he said, Bechtel said there was still asbestos in what used to be the coach’s office.
Mount Vernon Fire Chief Shawn Christy said he obviously looks at the building from a fire perspective.
“I think when you look at the [Dilapidated Buildings Commission], you have the city engineer looking at it from the street perspective, you have the fire department side, you have Brian looking at the health view.
“There were very little fire-related issues,” he said. “There is very little in there to burn. There were some 2-by-4s, but it was pretty clean.”
Christy’s issues stem more from a firefighter safety standpoint.
“When you search buildings with chains that make it difficult for people to enter, it also makes it difficult for people to exit,” he said. “It is a building that our officers should be very cautious in entering; it’s very, very dangerous for our firefighters.”
The building has been the scene of two fires, in 2004 and 2005.
Bechtel allowed Councilman John Fair to tour the building along with commission members.
“I found that the middle school was pretty much the same way as when council members were allowed in several years ago,” said Fair. “It was cleaner, someof the framing was gone, but nothing else had been done.
“The purpose of the search warrant was to see if the building was secure,” he continued. “Mr. Bechtel said it was secure; I disagree with that.”
Everyone agrees the building itself is structurally sound.
“The outside walls are still intact,” said Benick. “But he’s doing nothing to maintain it. Mother Nature will reclaim that building...it’s just a matter of time.”
Bechtel and city officials are at an impasse regarding the area being designated a Community Reinvestment Area.
“We created the CRA at Mr. Bechtel’s request when he first bought it,” said Mavis. “When he didn’t pursue his plans, council withdrew the CRA. Mr. Bechtel feels he needs that to proceed.”
Mavis said that under a CRA, Bechtel would only get an abatement if something were done to renovate a property.
“He never did,” said Mavis. “The building is pretty sound. He feels he needs restoration of the CRA. Council is reluctant to reinstate it until they see something done. But I think that is certainly an open discussion area at this time.”
Fair said council will discuss the school at Monday’s meeting. Christy and Benick agreed it will again come before the Dilapidated Buildings Commission. No one knows whether the city will pursue charges prior to those two meetings. A call to city law director Bill Smith was unreturned at press time.