Commissioners Vote To Table Construction Of New Auxiliary Courtroom At Courthouse Plaza

(BEDFORD) – The Tuesday morning commissioners meeting looked a little different due to COVID-19 numbers increasing throughout the area.

The crowd attending the meeting was limited due to social distancing and Commissioner Rodney Fish and Gene McCracken attended via telephone conference.

The commissioners voted to table Lawrence County Superior Court Judge William Sleva’s request to move forward with plans to construct an auxiliary courtroom in the former WorkOne building at Courthouse Plaza.

Judge Sleva says the new courtroom is needed because court cases are backlogged due to COVID-19 and a special judge may be needed to hear cases in a timely manner and due to conflicts due to Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Cline elected as a judge. The prosecutor’s office will also use the new courtroom to hold grand jury hearings.

Judge Sleva says the estimated cost for the auxiliary courtroom is $200,000.

Sleva says construction costs would be paid for with grants from the Indiana Superior Court and the Criminal Justice Institute in addition to funds from the CARES Act. The commissioners questioned if CARES Act funding could be used for the project.

The county has not been awarded any of these grants at this time.

Commissioner Dustin Gabhart was not in support of using the full office space of the former WorkOne office for the new courtroom.

“I can’t see using 10,000 square feet of space for an auxiliary courtroom,” said Commissioner Gabhart.

Judge Sleva said the space is needed. He stressed that during major jury trials there are between 90 to 120 jurors called for jury selection during a felony criminal trial.

“Luckily, we have advance warning and we can use both courtrooms downstairs during jury trials,” he added. “There are very few counties that don’t have an auxiliary courtroom.”

Another concern Commissioner Gabhart voiced was staffing the new courtroom and how those employee’s salaries would be paid.

Judge Sleva said no additional personnel will be needed to man the auxiliary courtroom.

“We will use one of our court reporters and the bailiff we currently have on staff,” he added.

The commissioners were not convinced and want to see bids for the project and clarification on how this project will be paid for before giving their final approval. The commissioners voted to table the request until the next commissioners meeting on November 24th.

“How can we move forward on a set and a prayer on funds we don’t have yet?” said Commissioner Gabhart. “That is not fiscally responsible. We don’t have any documentation on cost. We have nothing written down. The request started out at $50,00 to $60,000 pre-COVID then went hopefully to $75,000 and now we are approaching $200,000 or higher.”

In other business:

Lawrence County Circuit Court Judge Nathan Nikirk announced the county received a $427,458.12 grant from the Criminal Justice Institute.

“This is free money for the CASA program that will cover all two years and possibly a third to help abused and neglected children so they can have advocates in court,” said Judge Nikirk. “This is one of the largest grants our court system has seen.”

Judge Nikirk also received approval to apply for two other grants. One is a $101,000 Coronavirus Supplement Grant from the Criminal Justice Institute. If received the funds will be used on the construction of the new auxiliary courtroom. If construction of the new courtroom is not approved the grant will be used elsewhere.

Judge Nikirk also received permission to apply for a Court Reform grant. The deadline to apply is November 27th. The funds will be used to improve court security in Circuit Court offices.

The commissioners approved the county’s snow removal contract. Flynn & Sons was hired to do snow removal at all county properties. The company has done snow removal for the last four years. There has been zero increase in cost.

The commissioners approved IT Director Scott Nikirk’s request to upgrade county employee’s emails to Google Workplace. The county will change around 300 email accounts at a cost of $6 per month for each email or around $22,000 a year. Nikirk says the change will greatly increase security, saying about 90 percent of security attacks happen through emails.

Sheriff Mike Branham reported there were 150 inmates in the county jail Tuesday morning, of those 125 are males, 25 females, four Level 6 offenders, eight Department of Correction holds, and one parole hold.

The commissioners passed an ordinance to allow CARES Act funds to be placed in the general fund to start paying out claims due to COVID-19. Emergency Manager Director Valerie Luchauer says the county has been reimbursed 100 percent by the state.