Sullivan looks to upgrade courtroom security

J. H. Osborne • Feb 15, 2007 at 11:18 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - It might cost you more to go to court soon in Sullivan County.

But the payoff would be a safer courtroom once you got there, say officials prompting consideration of the fee hike.

A group of Sullivan County court officials met Thursday with County Mayor Steve Godsey to talk about making the county's 14 courtrooms - in four separate locations - safer for the people seeking, getting and serving up justice.

At meeting's end, Godsey was on the phone, starting the process to add Sullivan County to a private act approved last year by the Tennessee General Assembly.

That's what members of the Sullivan County Courthouse Security Committee asked him to do.

If Godsey's quest is successful, the Sullivan County Commission could eventually vote to increase court costs, for all criminal and civil cases, by up to $25 each. The money raised would be used to enhance security measures at county courtrooms.

Godsey and others at the meeting suggested asking the cities to "partner" in some way to offset the cost of additional security for the county courtrooms. City residents pay county property taxes, a portion of which pay for operation of the county's judicial system.

Last year Greene County officials got approval from the state legislature, through a private act, to increase how much it costs to file a court case there. They used the money to pay for additional personnel and equipment for courthouse security.

The private act gave Greene County leeway to increase the fee by up to $25, but they only increased it $15 - to generate an estimated $181,000 per year, said Judge John S. McClellan III, chairman of Sullivan County's Courthouse Security Committee.

The caseload in Sullivan County's judicial system would likely generate three or four times that amount, Godsey said.

McClellan said if the state allows Sullivan County to piggyback on Greene County's private act, the fee increase here could start out lower - maybe $5 or $10.

A primary focus of the committee is to get permanent security checkpoints at or near the entry point of county court facilities.

Unlike neighboring Washington County, Sullivan County does not have walk-through metal detectors to screen the public upon entry to courtrooms.

Judge J. Klyne Lauderback said there is no point in trying to improve courthouse security without putting walk-through metal detectors in place.

Lauderback said county and court officials have been talking about the need for increased security for years.

"We need to bite the bullet and start," McClellan said.

A study completed last year by a state agency recommended nearly $1 million worth of security upgrades at county facilities used for court proceedings.

That report, from the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, said it's not a matter of if, but when, a security incident will occur at any one of Sullivan County's 14 courtrooms.

Sullivan County Sheriff's Office personnel have provided similar assessments - and asked for money for security improvements - yearly, since at least 1999.

In a letter to county officials last year, Sheriff Wayne Anderson cited an estimated cost of $981,000 - per year - to put in place the security measures outlined by the state agency's assessment.

That amount was based on hiring 17 new officers.

Another $95,000 would be needed up front to pay for equipment including panic alarms, metal detectors, X-ray inspection systems and electronic doors.

County court facilities are spread out among four buildings: justice centers in Blountville, Bristol and Kingsport; as well as Kingsport City Hall. That last location in particular is considered a "very dangerous situation," according to the state agency's assessment.

"Abandoning this facility (City Hall) for court purposes is the only true fix ... but, of course, this is expensive and inconvenient," the report stated.

If the General Assembly approves adding Sullivan County to counties covered by last year's private act, any local fee increase still would require a two-thirds vote of approval from the Sullivan County Commission.

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