New courtrooms will be finished by spring, there just may not be people holding court in them.
A budget and staffing discussion led the Christian County Commission to reach the conclusion that the county government may not be able to staff enough security and sheriff’s deputies to operate two circuit courtrooms in the Christian County Justice Center annex, which is presently under construction on West Walnut Street in Ozark.
Construction crews intend to have the three-story, 34,000-square foot building in Ozark complete by the new target completion date of March 1, 2019. The project carries a price tag of $11.1 million.
Sheriff Brad Cole said the sheriff’s office does not have the funding or the staffing to operate courtrooms in the Justice Center annex when it opens.
“I can’t then, I can’t today and I can’t tomorrow make that happen. It’s not feasibly possible,” Cole said.
Currently, Christian County operates the Justice Center and Historic Courthouse with 12 sheriff’s deputies and six additional security persons whose wages are funded through the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System (MULES). Christian County’s budget for 2019 would allow for the hiring of three additional deputies whose primary duties would be to provide courthouse security.
All told, Christian County would have 21 people securing the Justice Center, Justice Center annex and Historic Courthouse, plus supervising inmates waiting for court appearances.
Cole told the commissioners he wanted to communicate the need for more security personnel on the courthouse campus.
“I’m not here to ask for more money,” Cole said. “I’m just telling you that it’s not possible to staff that building (the annex) and operate that building security-wise with what is available.”
The justice center annex sits to the south of the existing Christian County Justice Center, and will have its main entrance at the corner of West Walnut Street and South First Street. It will eventually house Christian County’s prosecuting attorney’s offices and the juvenile office. It also has courtrooms for two circuit judges, a detention area for inmates awaiting court hearings and conference rooms to support the courtrooms.
Western District Commissioner Hosea Bilyeu said the county could elect to leave the courtrooms closed when the building is complete.
“We built a building. We move our prosecuting attorney over. We move our folks over from juvenile, and we just simply don’t do anything else until we are in a different financial situation,” Bilyeu said.
In order to operate the courtrooms, Sheriff Cole and Capt. Thomas Koch referred to a personnel assessment that suggested Christian County would need a total of 39 courthouse security employees to operate six courtrooms in three buildings on its Justice Center campus.
“Now you’re telling me that instead of 12 security people, we need 39?” Christian County Presiding Commissioner Ray Weter asked the sheriff.
Cole clarified that the study suggested Christian County increase its staffing from the existing 18 personnel to 39, a difference of 21 new hires.
Hiring 21 new deputies simply is not financially plausible, Weter said.
“I’m sure it’s a misconception, but it seems to me like we have a security person behind every tree almost, and if we don’t we want one. That’s just my feeling,” Weter said.
“I personally still believe that you can do with considerably less than 39 and keep people safe. I want that to be clear. You say I don’t have the expertise, fine, I don’t have the expertise. I’ll say it anyway, it does not take 39 security people,” Bilyeu said.
Bilyeu proposed three options: not opening the two courtrooms in the Justice Center annex when it is finished in 2019, opening a courtroom in the annex but closing the courtroom on the second floor of the Historic Courthouse, or reorganizing the sheriff’s office to eliminate some ranked officer positions which command higher wages.
“One thing that I have said from the beginning that I will not do is to vote for a budget that we cannot sustain when we come to the next year,” Bilyeu said. “There’s best practices when it comes to security, there’s also best practices when it comes to budgeting.”
Eastern District Commissioner Ralph Phillips pointed out that the best practices with budgeting usually involve consolidating resources, not splitting them.
“Schools realized early on that if they consolidated they could cut the overhead and expense and operating costs. We’re doing basically just the opposite,” Phillips said.
Bilyeu said the best practices for securing the Justice Center annex will come from figuring out how to keep the building secure with a slimmer staff than the sheriff’s office suggests.
“It would not be ideal, I acknowledge that, but to say that we need 21 more campus security in that circumstance and we need them from the get-go—I don’t see that personally from my standpoint,” Bilyeu said.
Weter is the only commissioner of the current group of three who sat on the Christian County Commission when it first approved the Justice Center annex building project. He said that the project began as a way to expand the campus so that Christian County’s prosecuting attorneys and juvenile officer staff would have more space to work. The courtrooms and detention area were added to the project later.
On thing, Weter notes, that the commission did not plan for would be for six courtrooms to be in operation simultaneously.
“I said clearly we can afford to pay for this building, but if we put courtrooms in it, I don’t know that we can afford to staff it. I said it clearly,” Weter said. “The discussion leading up to even taking this project on never included running six courtrooms, never, ever.”
The commission took no action on budgeting more money for salary to hire additional deputies, apart from a 3-0 vote to reaffirm a previous 2019 budget recommendation from Christian County Auditor Amy Dent for salaries from the county’s general revenue fund.
“If we can’t afford to open it, we won’t open it,” Weter said of the courtroom space.