JP feels like ‘stepchild’ regarding security at south annex

STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS

Burnet County Courthouse South Annex

The Burnet County Courthouse Annex in Marble Falls houses county staff offices as well as two justices of the peace. The building does not always have a full-time officer inside to provide security, which two judges voiced their concerns about at a June 11 meeting with county commissioners. The item will be placed on an upcoming commissioners court agenda after no action was taken June 11. File photo

Two justices of the peace told Burnet County commissioners they are concerned about the lack of full-time security in the county’s south courthouse annex in Marble Falls. Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Jane Marie Hurst and Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Debbie Bindseil addressed the Commissioners Court at its regular meeting June 11.

“I’m calling upon y’all to help us … address full-time security at courthouse buildings, specifically the courthouse annex,” Hurst said. “I hate to say this, but we feel in the south annex that we are the stepchild under this topic.”

The county sheriff, according to state statute, is in charge of security at county courthouse buildings. In Burnet County, courthouses include the main courthouse in downtown Burnet, the north annex on Texas 29 in Burnet, and the south annex on US 281 in Marble Falls.

The sheriff’s office has seven full-time officers to deploy between the three buildings, according to Sheriff Calvin Boyd.

Sgt. Jason Coates said at the meeting that, when needed, the officer at the south annex is the first to be pulled from the courthouse security pool to cover other concerns.

Bindseil, who has offices in the south annex, said the lack of security causes confusion for visitors.

“They come in one time, and there’s security. The next time, there’s a sign on the (metal detector) that says it’s out of order,” Bindseil said. “I’ve seen a lot of time, as people walk in, they don’t know what to do. I think we need to be consistent.”

Constables in the building secure courtrooms inside the annex when court is in session but leave the halls and front door unwatched.

“We cannot pull double-duty; it’s too much to ask of us,” Precinct 3 Constable Chip Leake said.

The issue of safety has been a concern, according to Hurst, since she was sworn into office earlier this year. The Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017 was passed by the Texas Legislature to improve security for judges at all levels after the Austin judge for which the act was named was shot and wounded outside her home.

One requirement of the act is for counties to establish a courthouse security committee.

“Why wait for that (security) experience to happen? Why not be proactive?” Hurst asked.

Burnet County Judge James Oakley emphasized that the county has not had an incident or been under threat of one at any of its buildings.

“The Legislature has taken the initiative to limit what we can do, and we’re mindful what tax dollars are able to do,” Oakley said. “We have to find a balance of what is appropriate and responsible. We can spend a lot of money (on courthouse security) if we wanted to, but we wouldn’t have done other things we want to do.”

According to the county’s adopted 2018-19 fiscal budget, the total courthouse security budget is $614,121. Hurst and Bindseil said they aren’t asking for a certain percentage of the budget to go toward the south annex.

“Security amongst the three courthouses should be administered equitably and completely, not as needed or anything less than full-time,” Hurst wrote in a statement.

During the meeting, Oakley said he wants to find a solution that is reasonable and efficient without making anyone feel underserved. The commissioners did not vote on the agenda item, but Oakley ended the discussion during the meeting by saying he would put together a group including the county attorney, auditor, and sheriff to study statutes and solutions and put the item on a future agenda.

When asked by Hurst if it will be rescheduled on a future agenda, Oakley replied: “That would be the plan.”

Burnet County commissioners meet the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.

jared@thepicayune.com

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