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State office building reports constant rats and other pest infestation

CATHERINE MARFIN | 5/5/2019, noon
On Jan. 16, an employee at the Texas Department of Insurance noticed an unwelcome pest in her fifth-floor office in ...
The William P. Hobby Jr. State Office Building in Austin houses several small state agency offices. – Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Because of the commission’s limited budget, there is only one full-time employee who handles monthly pest services for the building and about 40 other Austin properties.

Earlier this year, the commission inspected the building and sealed and treated all of the cracks and gaps that could potentially allow pests to get inside. Normally, the building is serviced once per month and on a spot-treatment basis, said Francoise Luca, communications specialist at the T.F.C.

“Snap traps are used inside the building to trap rodents, and bait stations are used only in the parking garages,” she said in an email.

Luca said the building’s location near many restaurants and bars in downtown Austin creates “numerous challenges” for the maintenance team, but she doesn’t think the building has a major problem with rats.

“I can understand that one rodent is one too many,” she said. “[But I would also] be concerned about the security system, and the fire protection system and the other systems. This building obviously is an older building, it sits in our downtown business district. It is not immune to any of the other problems that any of our other buildings experience.”

But employees in the building disagree. They said that many people were “so distrustful” of the commission that employees in the building often do their own cleanups, including the employee who spoke with The Texas Tribune who has removed all her personal items from her office and thoroughly wipes down her desk with disinfectant wipes before work every day.

“It’s evident that people in the facilities commission and in charge of the Hobby Building don’t care. And if they do care, it’s a secret because nobody can tell,” she said.

Hoping to sell

The pest problem is just one of many deficiencies that lawmakers have pointed to as they seek to rid the state of the property this legislative session. Bills moving through both the House and Senate would allow the state to auction off the building. Lawmakers have consistently referred to the building as an “underperforming asset” that is too expensive to maintain.

“To use well-chosen words, it’s an embarrassment,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, at a Senate Committee on Business and Commerce hearing in April.

He authored one of those bills, Senate Bill 1349, which was voted out of the Senate and now heads to the House for consideration.

Even if his legislation passes, it could take several years to sell the building, he said, and that some of the employees may be relocated to new buildings on the Capitol grounds that will be created by the Capitol Complex construction project and are expected to begin occupancy in 2021, according to the project’s website.

Attention brought by the potential sale has prompted the the commission to contract with ABC Home & Commercial Services, a local pest control company, to provide “full pest and rodent eradication services” in the building, Luca said.

Loren Smith, property manager for the building, said the contract with ABC helps the pest control services become more visible to the building’s employees. And because the one full-time employee is split between so many properties, he often treats the building during the evening, going unseen by employees.

“The contract with ABC has assisted in helping us have more of a presence to allow us to show there’s more work done to eradicate the rodents in the buildings,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that before we didn’t fully handle it; it’s just a larger impression of what’s happening.”

The state employee said her office has only experienced one pest incident since ABC began working in the building earlier this month.