By Chris Berendt Staff Writer
February 4, 2014
Four years after a team was formed toward tightening security in Sampson County courts, a plan that budgets needed personnel and equipment to help make all three local facilities safer was approved Monday.
The issue of court security — and lack of it in Sampson — has hovered over downtown Clinton and the Sampson County Board of Commissioners for years. A judge’s order last month mandated action be taken by the Sampson Board of Commissioners, which heeded that call this week.
A unanimous decision by the board Monday night seeks to part the clouds, funding five deputies positions and two security officers, along with associated equipment and supplies, at a cost of $121,895 for the remainder of the 2013-14 budget starting April 1. Facility improvements and security equipment are projected to cost $264,990, however some equipment would have to be bid out so that figure could be lower.
Currently, the total cost from April 1 to June 30, 2013 would be $386,885. The recurring courthouse security costs for 2014-15, in personnel, uniforms and vehicle insurance, is projected at $424,935. In future years, the cost would be slightly higher.
Following an hour of discussion at a Monday special session, Commissioner Billy Lockamy made a motion to approve the budget amendment, seconded by Jarvis McLamb and approved unanimously.
“It is a historical decision,” said board chairman Jefferson Strickland.
Commissioner Albert Kirby and others said he was glad the board was moving forward with a plan that might be able to ease the “panicked feeling” that has permeated court facilities in the past, where people have come and gone without being scanned by metal detectors or checked for weapons.
Kirby did raise concerns of Sampson’s massive court calendar and the possibility of swaying judges to modify the calendar, in an attempt to reduce the facilities needed, before the county obligates funding to cover three courts.
The need for more court space, and the county accommodating that need over three locations, has put it in a precarious position, with a minimal amount of deputies to cover a maximum amount of space. Factoring in multiple entrances into the courthouses, including four at the main courthouse, providing security has been a remote possibility with existing staff unless more personnel is hired or entrances are cut off and court consolidated — or both.
The county’s stagnant tax base and its mounting debt service have compounded matters, and delayed funding court security. However, local judges chided commissioners recently, saying that was no excuse. Lives were at stake, they said.
An order from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, signed Jan. 22, stated that the inadequacy of courtroom security had been brought to the attention of “the appropriate authorities and individuals in positions to facilitate proper security” for approximately four years, and specific security lapses reported for the past two years.
Parsons stated in his order that security in all three facilities “is totally lacking and inadequate, thereby potentially endangering all individuals in each courtroom.” He ordered that manned metal detectors shall be used to screen each individual entering the three facilities by April 1, and functioning panic buttons installed at judge’s benches in each courtroom by June 1.
An attorney, Kirby said he was “100 percent” in favor of better security in courts, but was concerned about cost.
“Nearly a half million dollars added to our debt services every year is obviously the thing that is very concerning to me,” said Kirby. “It has to be done, but that is quite a big pill to swallow.”
“Something has got to be done, and we want to do it in the most economical way and we’re asking the court system to help us if they can,” said Lockamy.
Cameras and card access readers would be installed at all three courthouse locations — the main courthouse, annex and extension — as well as panic buttons within the four courtrooms at those three locations. A command area where court could be monitored would also be constructed. The county already has three walkthrough metal detectors, 12 handheld metal detectors and an ID card system in its possession.
The approved budget amendment for courthouse security noted that revenues from housing out-of-county inmates would make up the majority of the nearly $400,000 cost, at approximately $326,000. County contingency funds and DSS monies, to pay for a juvenile officer, would make up the balance.
No fund balance would be used, finance officer David Clack said. Barring a tax increase, however, dipping into fund balance would likely be a necessity in future years, Clack noted. Continued revenues from housing out-of-county inmates is likely although the extent of those revenues remains to be seen, and lobbying state lawmakers to increase county allocation of court facility fees was a possibility, but nothing that could be counted on, Clack said.
“That is something real that we should work toward,” Strickland said of upping the county’s allocation of fee revenues. “This should be one of our priorities.”
Kirby said his constituents have inundated him with their concerns about limited court hours, where court may not begin its session until around 10 a.m. and not even return after noon, a circumstance he has seen firsthand as a practicing attorney. Arranging “big calendars” in court should be revisited, despite the feeling of local judges and court officials that court cannot be decreased from three facilities to two.
“I’m troubled if we didn’t do everything in our power to avoid (spending) nearly a half million dollars of taxpayers’ money,” the commissioner said. “That’s going to be a lot to swallow every year, and it’s going to get harder as the years go by. If everything wasn’t done to avoid that, I just wouldn’t feel good about that.”
Causey said when the Courthouse Security Team met years ago, it was established that all three courts were needed. Parsons reiterated that recently. Practicing law locally for the last 25 years, Kirby said he felt more discussions were needed on the topic before the county established a plan for increased personnel and equipment — and all the money it entails — as the status quo.
Kirby said he felt Parsons and others, including Judge Russell Lanier before him, have citizens and taxpayers at heart, but wanted to relay all concerns before the county takes a half-million dollar leap.
“They’ve been very patient with us,” said Lockamy of Parsons and other court officials. “I would think they would be considerate to the taxpayers too.”
The courthouse security team was formed in 2010, gauging comments from judges, attorneys, law enforcement, court personnel and various other county officials from Sampson and surrounding counties. A “bare bones” proposal for personnel and equipment was made by the team in February 2011, but never acted upon.
Lockamy said plenty of homework had been done, and other commissioners agreed the time for action was at hand.
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” said Strickland. “It is not our responsibility to arrange the court calendars for Sampson County. Our charge is to provide courthouse security. Action has to take place. This does not mean that we can’t change along the way.”
McLamb said improved security was long overdue, but noted further discussions with local court and judicial officials should take place. Causey said the large cost of security, when brought to judges’ attentions, may be a catalyst in reconsidering further how local court was scheduled.
“Judge Parsons threw it in our court, and I don’t blame him one bit,” said McLamb. “Something should have already been done. Now, maybe we need to throw it back into his end of the court, in coming up with different court arrangements.”
Strickland and Kirby, along with Thornton and other county managerial personnel, were nominated to talk with Parsons further about the matter in the coming weeks.
“If the court system is arranging the calendar in a way that costs taxpayers a half million dollars a year,” Kirby remarked, “we have a responsibility to say something to them about that. I think that (Parsons) is diligent and tax-conscious as well … and I think he’s trying to do what is right. I would hope we could see if there is a way we can arrange the court schedule to save money.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.