Portage County holds court in a 55-year-old building that officials say is too small, out of date and a security risk.
County leaders for years have pressed for a new courthouse, said Portage County Circuit Judge John Finn, and he has been one of them.
“The [courthouse] is in good condition,” he said, “but this is not the way to operate a court in this century.”
To change that, Portage County asked in a 2008 advisory referendum for approval to build a $72 million justice center with a courthouse, jail and other law enforcement offices. Voters rejected the request by a 3-to-1 margin.
Two years later, they rejected a pared-down referendum seeking $29 million for only a courthouse.
In the years since, the county has tried to work with what it has by instituting new policies, buying new equipment and renovating whenever possible. Officials say the measures are helping, but they question how long it can last.
Room to move
Lack of space, officials say, is a big problem.
When the courthouse opened in 1958, Portage County had one full-time judge and a part-time judge who worked in several counties. But the workload has increased since then, Finn said, to require three full-time judges and a family court commissioner.
“Eventually, there’s going to come a time when we’re going to need a fourth courtroom, which we don’t have,” he said. “And there’s nowhere to put it.”
The courthouse in downtown Stevens Point is on the second floor of the City/County Building, which houses other county and city offices. In part because of that shared structure, court officials say they are concerned about how people enter and move through the building.
The courthouse should have separate passages for different types of building users, said Daniel Kontos, chief deputy of the Portage County Sheriff’s Office.
“You want the public in one area,” he said, “staff in a secluded circulation pattern so they’re not exposed to the public, and then you have to have a security pathway for prisoner transport.”
After the second referendum failed in 2010, the Sheriff’s Office created the Courthouse Services Unit, a special division that manages courthouse security.
Court officials set up a security station on the second floor of the City/County Building so bailiffs and an armed deputy can screen people for weapons and contraband.
“When we first started, and you still see it to this day,” Kontos said, “[visitors] will come up to the top of the stairs, they will see there is active public screening going on, and they will turn around and leave.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office, the Courthouse Services Unit screened more than 42,000 people in 2012. The screenings identified 644 knives and 199 other weapons.
Court officials also renovated parts of the courthouse, adding secure doors and restricting access to stairwells and elevators.
The county also installed cameras and microphones in courtrooms and corridors. Deputies can hear outbursts and loud noises, but Kontos said the microphones do not pick up private conversations. Judges can mute the audio feed when necessary.
The security upgrades have been helpful, Kontos said. But he said they’re not enough.
“This is a makeshift situation where we are doing the best with what we have, and it is certainly not a guarantee of a safe environment,” he said. “We are making a safer environment. We like that, but we don’t want people to become complacent with just that.”
The Portage County Board of Supervisors, Finn said, now has shifted its focus to replacing the county jail, which is overcrowded and has cost the county millions of dollars to ship inmates to nearby counties.
In fact, County Executive Patty Dreier said, the board’s Public Safety and Emergency Management Committee recently approved a resolution asking that a new jail be included in the 2014 county budget.
According to the resolution, the jail should be “connected or incorporated with the Circuit Courts.”
Dreier said she supports the resolution but wants the county to develop a broader plan for a more robust justice center. She would not speculate as to whether the latest proposal would be subject to the same fate as the two previous referendums.
“I don’t know that we’ll get any kind of referendum passed,” Dreier said, “and yet we know that we have some serious, serious needs.”
The needs are clear, Finn said, but the solution still is cloudy.
“They recognize the problems aren’t going to go away,” he said. “The issue is how they’re going to get it done.”
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