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Committee gets a first-hand look at the needs for new courthouse facilities

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By Jenny Hartley

It took about 45 minutes Wednesday to convince Keith Deese that Lancaster County needs a new courthouse.

Deese is a member of the county's capital projects sales tax committee.

The committee is charged with developing a ballot question for a proposed bond referendum in which voters will decide whether to approve a 1 penny sales tax to fund a new courthouse and possibly other county building projects.

The committee toured the courthouse, built in 1828, 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield's cramped office across the street and the crowded family court building on Catawba Street.

"You've sold me on it," Deese told Lancaster County Clerk of Court Jeff Hammond after the tour of the family court building. "Something's got to be done. Now you have to help us sell it to the rest of Lancaster County."

Before the tour of the family court building, committee members sat in the courtroom at the historic courthouse and heard from Hammond, Barfield and Circuit Court Judge Brooks Goldsmith.

Goldsmith said one of his major concerns about the courthouse is that it only has one working entrance to the courtroom on the second floor. The outside stairs were closed a few years ago, because they're steep and uneven.

That means victims, witnesses, jurors, judges and the "people in orange suits and shackles" often find themselves face-to-face on the narrow stairway to the courtroom.

Goldsmith said the courthouse also needs a sally port – an enclosed garage where prisoners could be more safely brought into the courthouse and where judges could enter the building with more security.

"All the judges that come in here get nervous about it and complain about it," Goldsmith said. "It's a security issue."

The courthouse lacks a holding cell for prisoners, so those waiting for their cases to come up sit in seats near the only entrance, guarded by deputies.

These prisoners may have "stolen a candy bar from Kmart" or committed murder, Goldsmith said. Witnesses and victims must walk by them as they enter the courtroom.

"Everybody's right here in close quarters," Barfield said. "It's absolutely not safe."

Hammond said there is no space for attorneys to meet with clients, so they often must make do with talking in the stairway. If they're lucky, the jury room is available for them to confer.

Having served jury duty many times, Deese said he's noticed that the acoustics in the courtroom make it difficult to hear testimony.

"We're here to try to get this county to let us build you a new courthouse," Deese told court officials.

Downstairs, the committee checked out Hammond's cramped office, filled with files and stuffed with desks for employees.

Committee member Dave DeBruycker couldn't believe the tiny offices for two assistant solicitors and a paralegal on the first floor.

"This is unreal," he said.

The 180-year-old courthouse also has structural issues.

The windows are rotting and rain pours into the building during heavy storms.

It will cost $111,000 to fix the windows, because they have to be replaced a particular way due to the courthouse's National Historic Landmark status.

The roof also needs repair or replacement.

The committee will look over proposals from various county officials in coming weeks for the referendum.

A new courthouse could house court facilities, Probation and Parole, Department of Juvenile Justice, the public defender and solicitor's office, clerk of court and other court needs, including multiple courtrooms.

The architectural firm, Stevens Wilkinson, is working to get a cost estimate to the committee as soon as possible.

If a new courthouse is built, the current one might be converted to a museum, officials have said.

The sales tax committee has until the end of July to decide on what projects will be included in the referendum and develop a ballot question, which requires approval by County Council. The referendum will be held during the November general election.

The sales tax committee's next meeting is at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or (803) 283-1151