Single point of entry at courthouse starts Monday
By Joseph Bell
RIDGWAY – In yet another sign of the changing times, the Elk County Courthouse in downtown Ridgway will transition to a single point of entry starting Monday morning.
The only available entrance to the building will be the back door of the courthouse-- in front of the Elk County Prison-- as all other doors to the facility will be locked.
In revealing their 2014 budget proposal Nov. 25, 2013, which also featured a one-mill tax increase (the first since 2009), the commissioners reported that the Associated Office of Pennsylvania Courts [AOPC] recommended a single point of entry at the courthouse.
The recommendation was supported and requested by Elk County president judge Richard Masson. Security also will require rekeying of locks for both buildings-- the courthouse and courthouse annex-- totaling $6,500.
According to Elk County Commissioner Dan Freeburg, a contract with Allied Barton, a Pittsburgh-based company, should be approved at the commissioners' March 4 board meeting.
Branching out and having either prison guards or sheriff deputies provide the security was reportedly not an option as Elk County Commissioner June Sorg cited overtime costs, health insurance and benefits as reasoning against an "in-house" option.
"It is more cost effective for us to branch out and bring in an agency to manage the security," Sorg said during a meeting in February.
The transition to a single point of entry has been met with scrutiny from both the general public and courthouse employees, both of whom feel inconvenienced by the change.
The board of commissioners, however, are seeing both sides to the issue.
"It's never been an issue [security] because of maybe small town trust, and that's a wonderful thing, and it's one of the reasons why we live here," said Elk County Commissioner Jan Kemmer. "It's come to an age now where we are becoming more and more aware because we get instant news from the media. We're aware that there are issues, and then there are copycat issues.
"Years ago no one really had these feelings. The AOPC did the inspection and our president judge was having those feelings [regarding security] and [AOPC] recommended the single point of entry for safety."
Elk County Commissioner Dan Freeburg said he understands that government officials must be mindful of security measures but he has heard from both sides from the general public.
"On one hand I can't believe that our county government in Ridgway is doing this. It's silly, we're still a small community, that's what some people are telling me," he said. "On the other hand, the same people from here have said 'It's about time.' But I think that's the sad reality of it, that so much of our government is the sad reality of society right now, and to me it's a whole reflection of the lack of responsibility and respect from people.
"There is a certain degree of uneasiness and lack of trust, and certainly from the news media as well, we're not isolated at all anymore as everyone keeps up with the news. They always say, 'Look what happened in this little place here, it can happen anywhere.'"
A prime example Friday was a gunman who was killed after a standoff with SWAT outside the Moore Justice Center [Brevard Courthouse] in Viera, Fla.
Published reports show the incident began at roughly 10:15 a.m. on Friday morning in the traffic circle outside the courthouse when witnesses spotted a man waving a gun. The man reportedly made his way toward the front door of the building, and people inside dropped to the floor.
Deputies contained the gunman in an area near the courthouse at 10:37 a.m. A police negotiator was speaking to the man, who was pacing near the courthouse while other law enforcement officials took cover behind their cars with guns pointed at the suspect.
Two snipers reportedly trained guns on the man from the roof, according to WESH Channel 2 news in Florida. SWAT members took over shortly before 1 p.m. as they took cover behind an armored truck and moved toward the man. He took off on foot and was killed in gunfire.
According to the National Center for State Courts [NCSC], court-targeted acts of violence in state and county courts in the U.S. has quadrupled since the 1970s; violent incidents in state and county courts has increased sevenfold since 2005.
"The court is really dictating to us that they want this and it's understandable-- but is it sad?… absolutely," Freeburg said. "It is our job responsibility in working with the judge, which has dictated that we have to do this."
Kemmer said while the board sees both sides, it comes at a great expense.
The domestic relations office-- a court-related department-- will move to the former assessment office in the courthouse. The assessment office is currently situated on the second floor of the courthouse annex in a temporary space while domestic relations transitions into the new office. Renovations include bulletproof glass.
"A big part of the consideration is that there is funding coming from the court side and that money is not Elk County taxpayer dollars," Freeburg said.
Nonetheless, he indicated some of the funding is in correlation with the one-mill tax increase that will see an extra $500,000 in tax revenue.
"We were guessing near $100,000 would have to deal with the entire court-issued security, absolutely," Freeburg said. "It'll be a huge inconvenience but that is the definition of security. Would the commissioners have done this had the judge not ordered or asked for this? No."
Surrounding counties, including Cameron, Clearfield, and Jefferson to name a few also have a single point of entry, but according to Freeburg, that does not "justify it to the commissioners."
"But to mention that the other counties are doing this, it's easier for the public to understand, this is what's happening in our world right now," Freeburg said, indicating that Elk is one of the last counties in the state to switch their courthouse to a single point of entry. "It's happening in schools, everything, that's just the way it is."
Had the domestic relations office not moved to the courthouse, both buildings-- the courthouse and the annex-- would have been transitioned to a single point of entry.
In addition, according to Freeburg, despite the single point of entry security, which will feature a walkthrough metal detector and hand wand, taxpayers sitting in on Return Day in the main courtroom will be subjected to a metal detector on the second floor as well, traditionally staffed by the sheriff's department.
Freeburg said he was unsure why the duplication was requested by court officials.