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Erik Burgess, Published April 01 2014

Owner of Black Building in downtown Fargo faces possible arrest for boiler problems

FARGO – A Fargo city prosecutor says he may soon issue an arrest warrant for an owner of the historic downtown Black Building for allegedly failing to properly install a new boiler system in the 84-year-old building.

City officials say the boiler system, which inspectors ordered to be fixed last year, isn’t bringing in enough clean air to operate and so may be recycling old air throughout the building, which could cause dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide.

A city prosecutor who was unable to serve a subpoena on co-owner Lloyd Sampson said an arrest warrant may be issued in municipal court to get Sampson’s brother, Daniel, another co-owner, before a judge to compel addressing the issue.

“They’re not cooperative at all,” Assistant City Attorney Jason Loos said.

DTL Properties, which owns the Black Building, could face a fine of up to $81,000, or $1,000 per day for each day the company is alleged to have been in non-compliance. The city accuses the owners of DTL Properties of failing to comply with city code from Dec. 6 through Feb. 25.

Lloyd Sampson said in an interview Monday he is aware the city was trying to bring them to court, but he called the entire situation a “misunderstanding.”

“They’re being a little goofy, I think,” Sampson said of the city. “I don’t know why they want to get weird about it. I always have done what they want us to do.”

These allegations mark the second time in under a year that inspectors have forced the Black Building owners to fix maintenance problems. The city threatened legal action last fall when both passenger elevators in the eight-story building stopped working. The elevators were eventually fixed.

Loos said an arrest warrant in this scenario would be a “last resort.” If the building’s owners are found guilty in court, Loos said it’s likely most of the fine would be suspended until the repairs are made.

“It gets something to put over their heads so they’ll do the repairs because that’s the point of these, is to get them to fix and address the issues,” Loos said.

Threat of ‘bad air’

After receiving a warning from the state that the leaking 40-year-old boiler could be condemned, the Black Building owners installed two new boilers late last year.

In its lawsuit, the city claims the Black Building doesn’t have enough clean “makeup air” coming into the new boilers, which means they could start recycling old air, said Jerome Miller, deputy inspections administrator.

This could lead to carbon monoxide issues and generally means the boilers won’t run efficiently, Miller said.

“Things start going backwards,” he said. “Rather than trying to get the bad air and the pollutants out of the building, they start flowing backwards through the common areas.”

Miller said the city has been monitoring carbon monoxide levels in the building. So far, there has been no cause for alarm.

“It has not been a problem, but I need to tell you that both boilers have not been fired at the same time, either,” he said.

Lloyd Sampson said they don’t intend to ever use both boilers at the same time. He said one is meant to be a backup.

He also said the old boiler was 200 horsepower, while the two new ones are each about 70 to 75 horsepower. He argued that if the building had enough makeup air for the bigger boiler, it should be sufficient for two smaller ones.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Sampson said.

“For 40 years, that boiler was in there,” he added. “No one ever died of asphyxiation or whatever they’re complaining about.”

Sampson said the city told him last fall that the makeup air for the old boiler would be sufficient for the new boilers.

He said he doesn’t know why the city is attempting to bring them to court, because he has “always worked with them” to comply with code issues.

“That’s almost bizarre because it’s a complete misunderstanding to begin with,” Sampson said. “They told me that makeup air was fine for one boiler. So I disconnected the other boiler, so they’re kind of being goofy about nothing, quite frankly.”

A court date hasn’t been set because the city has been unable to serve the summons and get an owner in front of a judge, Loos said.

He said Lloyd Sampson is not listed with the North Dakota secretary of state as a registered agent of DTL Properties, but Daniel Sampson is. Daniel Sampson, Lloyd’s brother, lives in Grand Forks, Loos said.

“We’re either going to have an arrest warrant out for him (Daniel Sampson) or we’ll try and get someone in Grand Forks to serve the summons,” Loos said.

Hot water problems

The city inspections office has also received complaints from tenants that the Black Building has no hot water, and the building’s owners have missed a city deadline to get that issue fixed.

The issue has since been forwarded to Loos, who said the same maximum penalty of $1,000 per day for each day of non-compliance would apply to the water heat issue. Loos said Monday that he hasn’t had time to view that case.

After receiving complaints, city inspector John Mrozla checked the hot water temperature on Feb. 26 in a sink in a public restroom in the Black Building and found it was 95 degrees. Code requires it to be at least 110 degrees, he said.

The city’s code jurisdiction only applies to public spaces, Mrozla said.

“If you would talk to the tenants over there, like Bertrosa’s and the salons and anybody else that uses water, you’d find that they didn’t have hot water, either,” Mrozla said.

The Black Building owners were given until March 18 to fix the problem, but the issue was not fixed by then, he said. He said he continued to receive complaints about cold water through Friday.

Lloyd Sampson said they weren’t aware that some elements in the water heater had burned out until just a few weeks ago, when they stopped using the boiler to heat water and switched over to the water heater.

“We fixed it. So it works now again. That’s all it was,” Sampson said. “I mean, that happens everywhere. That happens in a house. That probably happens in your house, the water heater goes out.”

The city also asked the owners to fix an illegal plumbing installation in Belle Aire Salon by March 18, which they did not do, either, Mrozla said.

The Black Building were also given until April 11 to fix an incorrectly installed water heater in the basement, which has “hazardous and amateur wiring,” according to a report from Mrozla.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518