Safe and Sound

Published 10:13 am Monday, March 13, 2017

JACKSON – After months of debate over funding, Northampton County local government officials will move forward with a plan to perform several critically needed security upgrades to its historic courthouse.

At their meeting here Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to spend $140,300 to enclose the breezeway that connects the courthouse with an adjacent building – the rear portion of which is used as an auxiliary courtroom. By enclosing the breezeway, access to the small courtroom will only be allowed from inside the main courthouse and through a metal detector.

The project also includes security upgrades to side entrances to the courthouse (entry will only be allowed by scanning a card) and at the facility’s main entrance, which is at the rear of the building.

The Commissioners were made aware late last year of serious security issues at the main courthouse and the auxiliary courtroom in the adjoining building. However, at that time, there were concerns by the board as to how to pay for the upgrades since this was an unbudgeted item.

At Monday’s meeting, the board had a clearer picture of the money it will take to complete the project.

“We need to make money available for this project for the security and safety of our employees and the visitors using our courthouse,” said Commission Chairman Robert Carter.

Northampton County Manager Kim Turner said at the outset of discussing the courthouse security upgrades, that project was piggybacked with another – a $2.2 million plan to renovate the old DSS building and turn that facility into office space for several county departments. She said the original plan called for financing both projects through a loan from USDA. However, the commissioners separated the two projects earlier this year.

“We can now look at fund balance to support the courthouse project, but I do not know what our fund balance looks like right now because our financial audit is not complete,” Turner stated.

“I was told that this (courthouse project) was already part of our (current) budget,” said Commissioner Geneva Faulkner. “If that’s the case, then isn’t the money already there for this project? We do not need to take out a loan when that’s not necessary.”

“We wouldn’t take out a loan for $140,000; we can take that out of fund balance,” Turner said.

“This needs to be taken care of immediately; this may be the only time I say this, but if needed, take this money out of fund balance,” remarked Commissioner Charles Tyner. “We need to make our courthouse safe for all that use it.”

Tyner put his recommendation into the form of a motion to approve the project, directing Turner to find the money from where it’s best available. Commissioner Fannie Green offered a second and it passed by a 5-0 vote.

Prior to entering discussion on the security upgrades, the commissioners heard from both the county’s Clerk of Court – Laquitta Green Cooper, and Sheriff Jack Smith.

Cooper shared the story about a bullet that was discovered hidden in a toilet paper holder in a bathroom inside the courthouse.

“We called deputies over to investigate, but it’s unknown of how it got there,” Cooper said, adding that incident only heightened the concern about courthouse safety.

“We’ve taken every measure that’s possible to try and make it secure as possible for (courthouse) employees as well as our citizens,” Cooper added.

She stressed that the metal detector used at the main, rear entrance to the courthouse is possibly outdated.

“We’ve had it since 2006,” she said. “It’s been tested, and I’m no expert, but I feel we need a more updated metal detector and have the proper training to have our officers trained on how to use the metal detector and other techniques to make our courthouse safer.”

Cooper noted that by enclosing the breezeway and not permitting what is now “off the street” access to that small courtroom would be welcomed.

“There’s no way now to ensure the safety of that small courtroom,” she said.

“We’re living in a mad world now where anything can happen,” stated Commissioner Tyner. “We need to do all we can to eradicate this problem. We can’t put this (project) off any longer.”

Turning to Scott McKellar, legal counsel to the commissioners, Tyner asked if the county could be held liable should anything bad happen inside the courthouse when county officials were fully aware of security issues and did not take any corrective measures.

McKellar nodded affirmatively.

“It’s much cheaper to renovate than to pay for a lawsuit,” Cooper remarked.

In the initial planning stages of the project, Cooper noted that the cost was in excess of $500,000. That amount, she said, was then trimmed to $250,000 and now to $140,300.

Sheriff Smith agreed with Cooper’s assessment of security issues.

“There is the fact that whatever we do, there’s only certain things we can do since our courthouse is registered as a historic building,” Smith said the facility, the original portion of which was constructed in 1858 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“What we can’t do is make it a 2017 facility,” Smith said, “but we can make it safer for our employees and the citizens who use our courthouse.”

He also agreed with Cooper’s statement about the metal detector.

“It’s extremely old,” said the Sheriff. “There are things that can come inside our courtrooms that this detector cannot detect.

“I think my staff does a reasonable job now with what we currently have to work with, but what we’re working with is old technology,” he added.

He also stressed the need for the security upgrades to the side entrances to the courthouse. Smith said an alarm will sound if those access points are used without proper codes.

At a November meeting of the Northampton Commissioners, they were told by Chief District Court Judge Brenda Branch that the Northampton Courthouse was, in her opinion, the most unsafe one in District 6, which also includes Bertie, Halifax and Hertford counties.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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