Senior courthouse officials all agree on the need for more space in the Glynn County Courthouse, but not many of them know exactly whether or not a major expansion project on the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax 2020 list will address their needs.
In 2019, a county-appointed committee of security, architecture and construction professionals investigated claims by Glynn County Superior Court judges and court staff that the courthouse was not big enough for the courts and associated offices it contained.
The committee found evidence to support the claims, but determined security to be a much larger problem than the initial space-related concerns.
Ralph Basham, chairman of the committee, told county commissioners in October that committee members were “quite shocked,” at both the lack of space and security in county court facilities and that the courthouse itself was in “an unacceptable situation.”
The committee recommended the county move ahead with a proposed courthouse expansion plan, which would consolidate Glynn County Juvenile Court into the main courthouse building at 701 H St. and included new security measures.
So far, the county has gotten a consultant — architecture and engineering firm Heery — to design a conceptual building footprint but has no concrete expansion plans.
Based on Heery’s concept, the project could cost between $19.4 million and $21.6 million, depending on when construction starts. If construction started this year cost would be closer to the low number, while the consultant said costs would likely rise to the high number or higher by 2023.
While the project list has not been finalized, most of the seven-member county commission is in favor of paying for the project with SPLOST 2020 money.
SPLOST is a one percent sales tax approved by voters and used to pay for capital improvement projects. SPLOST 2020, which commissioners wish to impose for five years and could collect $105 million, will be on the ballot during the May primary.
During a press tour of county court facilities on Thursday — starting at the entrance to the Glynn County Courthouse — Undersheriff Ron Corbett used the term “security nightmare.”
Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump, State Court Clerk Brenda Boone-Cove, Superior Court Clerk Ron Adams and Josh Lewis, the sheriff’s deputy in charge of courthouse operations, agreed.
Due to how the front security desk of the main courthouse is situated, someone could walk right in and attack before deputies could stop them. Jump said security needs some level of control out to the flagpole in the courtyard to prevent threats from entering the courthouse.
The courthouse expansion plan’s security measures include an exterior security checkpoint.
The same could be said for the Old Glynn County Courthouse, which typically has one deputy at a time manning the security desk.
If SPLOST 2020 is approved by the voters, the expansion would remove that risk by moving all probate court functions into the main courthouse, Jump said.
Court officials also showed off a hallway behind two courtrooms on the second floor, which is used by judges, juries and inmates alike.
Coordinating the three groups and making sure they don’t run into each other in the hall is a “hell of a dance” for deputies, Lewis said.
Members of the committee found security problems in Glynn County Juvenile Court on Gloucester Street to be of equal severity, if not worse.
Minors waiting to go before a judge are processed and seated in a waiting area in full view of the main entry and with no physical barrier to protect them, according to Donita Taylor, clerk of Juvenile Court. She said that people heading to the public defenders’ offices and drug court regularly pass through while children are waiting for a hearing.
Fights break out on the regular, and girls both in the seating area and walking through the entryway are subjected to catcalls and harassment, she told members of the press on Thursday.
Juvenile Court Judge George Rountree said the offices of court staff are not nearly secure enough, and his office is in plain view of the parking lot out front. Given how high tensions can rise in juvenile court — where his decisions sometimes mean the separation of parents from their children — he fears for his life at times.
“I’m a sitting duck at night,” Rountree said, after explaining that he often stays in the office late working on cases.
Parking is also an issue at the main courthouse, where judges are fully exposed when entering and leaving the building, Jump said. But the county’s preliminary expansion plan shows a new secure, fenced-in parking area for judges and prisoner drop-off and pickup.
Security issues didn’t end there. Others include the windows in the jury selection room, where some court proceedings are held due to lack of courtrooms. Jump said it’s unlikely anyone could break out through the windows, but some have hurt themselves trying.
While not as immediate, limited courtroom, office and storage space will eventually catch up with the county, Jump said.
“Let me say again, it’s not an emergency at this time, but it will be in the future,” Jump said.
Courtrooms are in use every day for various things, Adams said. When the judges aren’t in court, they have out-of-court work to do in their offices. When court dates are rescheduled or defendants plead, the clerk’s office usually doesn’t have enough time to schedule something else in its place, Adams said, and trying can throw calendars into disarray.
Each courtroom generally has enough room for 105 people at maximum, Lewis explained, but necessity forces as many as 170 people to make use of them on busy days. The same could be for magistrate, probate and state court.
Because of how spread out court facilities are, deputies get so tied up in their courthouse responsibilities on busy days they don’t have enough hands to work on their other duties, like serving warrants.
In the state court clerk’s office, employees were working in close quarters. Boone-Cove said she needed more staff, but didn’t have enough room for them.
Adams had some vacancies at the time, but said the same is true for his office when it’s staffed up, he needs more than he had room for.
County juvenile court faces equally bad problems, Lewis continued. Located at 1815 Gloucester St., he said any issues are exacerbated by the court’s distance from the main courthouse and the county jail, roughly a mile and four miles respectively.
Juvenile Court only has one courtroom in which to hear all juvenile cases, which Rountree said is far from what it needs.
On the second floor of the juvenile court building, more juvenile court staff offices, a room for panel case reviews and a room for the court’s youth intervention program crowd the limited space.
Among the major concerns for all involved was storage space for court and property records.
A small room in the state court clerk’s office holds case files going back decades.
In property records, a few feet of bookshelf space remained, but Adams said it wouldn’t last long. He said the same of superior court’s case records storage: very little room remaining.
In the case of state and superior court case records and property records, Adams and Boone-Cove said they could digitize the records and either destroy or store the physical records elsewhere, which would provide more space in the short term.
Boone-Cove said her staff saves all new records digitally and converts old records into a digital format when they’re pulled for reference, but that it would take much more time and manpower than she had to scan all her records into a database.
Over in the superior court clerk’s office, Adams said the judges preferred physical documents to digital. Also, he said navigating a database is much more time-consuming for many than searching physical records.
“That’s just the nature of it, and the clerk’s first duty is to make the judges happy,” Adams said.
As for property records, he said it’s more of a convenience issue. Many who regularly use property records would have a difficult time adjusting to a digital system.
Easily as important than the scanning itself, all records would have to be indexed so they could be found in a database, he explained. Indexing records would take as much time if not more. Like Boone-Cove, he said he didn’t have the manpower to do so, to begin with.
While they expressed their gratitude that the county was seriously working on expanding the courthouse, none of the three court officers on the tour — Adams, Boone-Cove and Jump — could say definitively whether or not the expansion plan would address those concerns.
None were consulted about the courthouse plans, neither Jump nor Boone-Cove had seen them on Thursday and none of them knew anything about plans for the interior.
The expansion plans show roughly what the expansion would look like from the outside. A report on the proposed plan states that it will include courtroom and office space for juvenile court and additional space for superior court and jury selection, along with the aforementioned security upgrades.
It makes no mention of state court, however, and shows no internal layouts or changes in the layout of the existing courthouse.
Members of the courthouse space needs assessment committee and a group from Heery toured the offices and spent 20 minutes or so asking questions about the offices, Adams and Boone-Cove said. Jump said he had not been consulted at all.
Due to the lack of detail on interior changes in the plan, Jump said he didn’t know if the expansion would address the safety issues in the hallways behind the courthouse, where judge, jury and inmate could conceivably cross paths.
Among those on the tour was a candidate for Glynn County Commission’s District 2 seat, Cap Fendig. A former county commissioner, he said he was one of the ones who made the decision to move the Glynn County Detention Center from the currently-vacant lot next to the courthouse to its current location further north, just off Ross Road.
He was not happy to learn the courts weren’t using video conferencing to handle court proceedings, which was one of the justifications for moving the jail.
On top of the deputies assigned to courthouse security, five deputies are needed to transport inmates from the jail to the courthouse, Jump said. On busy days, Lewis said they may have to transport as many as 90 inmates to and from the jail.
In theory, nearly all court proceedings could be handled via video conference, Jump said, which would eliminate the need for inmate transport.
But for that to happen all parties would have to agree, he said. No objections. Many judges prefer to have the people they’re judging in front of them, Jump said, and they could not force defendants to submit to conduct court proceedings via video if they wanted to.
The county would also have to spend the money to equip all courtrooms with video conferencing equipment.
In the end, Jump couldn’t say how much the shift to video conferencing would actually change as everyone would have to be on board.
He did say a courtroom in the new detention center has reduced the back-and-forth transportation significantly, however.
Despite the lack of information they had on the expansion plan, Adams, Jump and Boone-Cove said they supported the effort. The lack of space may not be crippling at present, but it will become a serious impediment to court functions, Boone-Cove said.
Jump once again touched on the security concerns, stating that they needed to be addressed sooner rather than later.
At an October work session, Commissioner Bill Brunson said the courthouse expansion is of utmost importance and that the county would likely issue bonds to cover the cost if SPLOST 2020 fails at the ballot.
“I just hope they talk to us,” Jump said.