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Legislative squeeze

SALEM — A $34.1 million restoration of the Capitol wings will find lawmakers returning for a special session in February crammed into tiny cubicles tucked willy-nilly throughout the main Capitol building.

All four floors of the wings which hold the legislative offices have been or are being gutted as part of a restoration designed primarily to correct and upgrade plumbing and electrical systems.

"Structurally, the building is sound," says Herb Colomb, facility services manager. But more than 5,000 feet of corroded pipe must be replaced along with outdated electrical wiring and computer cables that pose a serious fire hazard.

Another potential fire problem are many unmapped holes drilled in the floors for wiring. These could easily provide a conduit to spread flames, Colomb said.

"Until we pulled up the carpet, nobody knew how many there were, or where they were," he said.

Tiles have been stripped from the garage ceilings to get at the grid of overhead pipes and wiring that must be replaced.

In addition to wiring, plumbing and fire safety upgrades, the lawmakers will get new furniture and carpeting. When completed, all legislative offices with the exception of leadership will be roughly the same size.

Workers hauled 14 semi-truck loads of old furniture away and some will find its way on e-bay, the online auction site.

Jackson County's legislative delegation appears resigned to the inconvenience, including the loss of their basement parking spaces.

"I'm fine with it," said Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, who will wind up with a cubicle in a windowless basement hearing room along with other legislators.

"It should assure a short session," said Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point. "It's not a bad thing," he added, although he expressed concern that the 2007 session opted to bond for the work rather than pay upfront.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, doesn't know yet where his cubicle will be. "As I understand it, space is being assigned based on seniority," the second-term legislator said. "I think they may have me on the roof."

But he said the restoration was long overdue. Originally built at a cost of $12.5 million, the current appropriation includes $24 million in direct restoration work and another $10 million for furnishings, relocation expenses and other ancillary costs.

The scattered offices pose a problem for constituents who may want to visit with their senator or representative. The cubicles are tiny, with room for only one desk, a phone and a computer.

An improvised system to guide constituents to their legislator is being developed, according to Dave Henderson, director of the Legislative Administration office.

"We will ask members of the public to come to the galleria area where there will be a desk staffed by volunteers," said Henderson. They then can call the member or his or her staffer who will come to the galleria to meet the constituents.

Buckley said the House rules are being bent to allow limited constituent meetings on the floor.

The current renovation is not the end of planned upgrades that will be considered for the Capitol built in 1938, including retrofitting to cope with earthquakes.

Henderson said a master planning consultant will be hired shortly to develop a comprehensive plan for restoration of the main Capitol building, including a seismic upgrade.

Following the May, 1993 earthquake, a seismic survey was conducted.

"At that time the estimate was $90 million," said Henderson. "We don't know today what the cost ... will be."

The seismic recommendation 13 years ago included installation of a special device under the structure to act as a shock absorber and pinning the exterior marble to the building.

"It's on there securely now, but in event of an earthquake you are going to have slabs of marble coming down," he added.

He said in an ideal world the findings of the consultant would be finished by December 2008 and presented to the 2009 Legislature for consideration.

And if there's a recession?

"We're done. We're on hold for another 10 years," Henderson predicted.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.

Nuprecon employees Branden Fetter, left, and Alejandro Leon carry a door through the garage staging and storage area at the Capitol on Thursday . , Nov. 01, 2007 - ANDREA J. WRIGHT