BOWLING GREEN - After years of talking about it, Wood County officials plan on Dec. 12 to begin screening all visitors to the courthouse and office complex for weapons every day, all day.
The decision means all visitors and most of the 230 people who work at the complex will be required to pass through metal detectors and have their bags scanned. The checkpoint will be set up just inside the Summit Street entrance to the atrium that connects the three county buildings, meaning all other doors to the courthouse and atrium will be locked.
Staffing a single entrance is expected to cost more than $83,010 a year along with $20,000 in one-time equipment purchases for the checkpoint - expenditures county commissioners say are necessary.
"We may never know the true value of having security in place, but it provides, I think, a reasonable assurance to the public and to our own employees that this is a safe place to be," said Commissioner Jim Carter.
Commissioner Alvie Perkins said he's heard plenty of people suggest the weapons checks aren't needed because no one's been knifed or shot at the courthouse. He has one reply: "Do we wait for it to happen?"
He said, "Let one person get hurt or killed or maimed and we'll all say it's a good thing we did it."
Chief Court Constable Tom Chidester plans to hire four more part-time constables to staff the entrance with two officers from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The additional staffing will mean that the court security department, which has an annual budget of $162,580, will require more than $245,000 a year from the county's general fund beginning in 2006.
Last year, commissioners struggled to balance the 2005 budget in light of stagnant or shrinking revenue, but County Administrator Andrew Kalmar said the county would be able to cover the added cost of security.
"We don't appropriate the general fund right down to the penny," he said. "We certainly try to keep a reserve so that when things like this come along we're not scrambling trying to scrape for pennies... We feel comfortable that this is something that can be done and should be done."
Wood County is moving in the direction that one of every three county courthouses in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan already has gone: requiring all visitors to pass through metal detectors before entering.
Commissioners first began considering a single secure entrance five years ago when plans were being drawn for the $2.2 million atrium that connects the courthouse with the county office building and the county records center. They agreed to design the atrium to accommodate a single entrance but not open it with the security measure in place.
Now, with an increasing emphasis on the need for greater safety and security measures in U.S. courts, most elected officials agree the time has come.
Lucas, Hancock, Seneca, Allen, and Huron counties in Ohio have security checkpoints at their courthouses, as do Monroe and Lenawee counties in southeast Michigan.
Smaller Ohio counties, including Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Ottawa, Putnam, Sandusky, and Williams, are wide open on a daily basis, although most set up portable metal detectors outside courtrooms for high-profile criminal cases or hearings at which a judge or other court officials fear emotions could run high.
Wood County officeholders initially disagreed about the necessity for all visitors to pass through a checkpoint when they might simply be stopping by to get a dog license or pay real estate taxes.
Because one of the three common pleas courtrooms is in the county office building, though, it was agreed that it wouldn't be sufficient to only screen visitors to the courthouse.
Wood County Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey said the judges see tempers flare in domestic relations hearings and even in criminal proceedings. At a recent sentencing in his courtroom, the mother of the defendant became so enraged and belligerent that she had to be removed from the courtroom. She was ultimately arrested for assaulting the court constable who escorted her out of the courtroom. "What if Mom had had a little pistol in her purse?" the judge said.
The added security should be a good investment of taxpayer money, Judge Kelsey said.
"One angry litigant who shoots or stabs or inflicts serious injury on his or her opponent is an astronomical cost in terms of just the well-being of all of our citizens, and I guess we're being proactive and making sure that doesn't happen," Judge Kelsey said, adding, "How do you value the chance of saving a life some time in the future or the chance of saving someone from a severe injury in the future? That's the true benefit to all of our citizens."
Contact Jennifer Feehan