December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Judge Burge orders county to hire security for Adult Probation facilities

County judges want the Probation Department moved out of the old county courthouse because of poor conditions. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Judge James Burge has ordered the county commissioners to provide funds for security at the Adult Probation Department, which is houses at the old Lorain County Courthouse and the old Columbia Gas Building. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge has ordered the county commissioners to provide $124,953 to cover projected security costs for the county’s Adult Probation Department for the final three months of the year.

The money is to be turned over to county Sheriff Phil Stammitti by Sept. 13 so he can begin providing security at the entrances to the old Lorain County Courthouse and the old Columbia Gas Building, where the Probation Department has offices.

Burge said he expects the security would be in place around Oct. 1.

Stammitti has estimated that it would cost $396,356 per year to hire four full-time deputies and three part-time deputies and buy equipment to provide security at the two locations. The cost would drop by about $8,000 after the first year once the equipment is purchased.

County Administrator Jim Cordes said the commissioners have asked him to talk with their lawyer about seeking a delay in the imposition of Burge’s order. The commissioners have asked the county’s General Division judges, who oversee the Probation Department, to consider consolidating the two Probation Department offices at the old courthouse.

By merging the two offices at one location, Stammitti estimated the cost of security upgrades and the number of additional deputies he needs could be cut roughly in half.

Burge said he expects the commissioners will ultimately combine the two offices under one roof, something he acknowledged would reduce the amount of money the commissioners would have to provide.

Commissioner Lori Kokoski said she doesn’t think the commissioners would win if they mounted a formal legal challenge to the court order.

“It’s a shame,” she said. “If we’re going to add deputies it would be better for them to be on the road rather than for the Probation Department, where the employees carry guns and can defend themselves.”

Burge has previously said the firearms carried by probation officers pose a risk inside the building, and once the security changes are made, the probation officers will be required to check their weapons at the door.

The judges have been locked in an ongoing feud with the commissioners over where the Probation Department should be located. The judges want it moved to the unfinished fifth floor of the Lorain County Justice Center, something Kokoski and fellow Commissioner Ted Kalo view as too expensive.

The judges have offered to offset all but $900,000 of the projected $2.4 million to $2.8 million price tag for such a move, arguing that the conditions inside the old courthouse are unacceptable and unsafe.

Cordes, Kalo and Kokoski have said the problems, including lead paint, asbestos and mold, aren’t as bad as the judges contend and those issues can be addressed.

Kalo said Burge’s order was premature. He said the county has yet to hear back from the judges on the commissioners’ offer to combine the Probation Department offices at the old courthouse, which he believes is the best location.

“I am still under the belief that the best place to keep them is the old courthouse,” Kalo said.

Commissioner Tom Williams, who backs a move to the Justice Center, said he believes the judges are trying to force the commissioners into the fifth-floor plan by driving up the costs of bringing the old courthouse up to their standards. It’s a fight, he said, the commissioners are unlikely to win.

“Right now all we’re doing is racking up huge attorneys fees,” Williams said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @BradDickenCT.