Court Safety in St. Louis County at Heart of Proposition S
Voters will decide April 3 whether to adopt the $100 million bond issue.
Crumbling concrete, closets stuffed with files and electrical outages are among the problems at the St. Louis County Circuit Court building in Clayton, Judge Douglas Beach said.
So is safety. That's because the lack of space there and at the county's Family Court building often puts suspected criminals and their victims in the same room together.
Beach said that on one occasion, a burglar approached the older St. Louis County resident whose home he had broken into.
I know who you are, he said.
Such scenarios cause people to be re-victimized, Beach said, and it's one of the things he hopes can be prevented if voters approve Proposition S on April 3.
"This place isn't going to sustain itself," Beach said.
About Proposition S
On April 3, St. Louis County voters will be asked to approve a $100 million bond issue to fund construction on both court buildings. Most of the bond—$85 million—would be used to construct a new Family Court building next to the circuit court. The remaining $15 million would fund repairs at the circuit court.
Bonds from 1998 that funded the county's jail are being retired in the next 18 to 20 months, Beach said. County officials hope the new bond issue can succeed that one, at slightly lower interest rates, meaning the measure would not raise residents' taxes.
The measure needs 57 percent approval to pass. If passed, it would represent about $8 in annual property taxes for each St. Louis County property owner, but would not increase taxes for residents.
Shooting put visitor safety in perspective
Both facilities were built in 1970, and they were constructed to let people come in anywhere, Beach said.
A 1992 killing at the circuit court building changed all of that. Kenneth Baumruk received a first-degree murder conviction for shooting his wife during a hearing about the dissolution of their marriage, court documents state. He also injured two attorneys, a bailiff and a security officer.
"After the shooting, the St. Louis County courthouse, which previously had not had metal detectors and other extensive security, received immediate attention," a document from the 2002 case State v. Baumruk states. "The number of security guards was doubled and metal detectors were installed."
Court officials began funneling people through a single point of entry and up the escalators, Beach said.
Heavy use, limited exits, lack of fire sprinklers
But that became problematic when, in 1988, the manufacturer stopped producing the escalators. Parts for the devices stopped being available in the mid-1990s, Beach said.
The escalators are known to break down. Bright yellow barricades are set up to block access when that occurs. The replacement of an escalator would cost $2 million, Beach said.
Five elevators also are available, though accessibility becomes an issue
when 300 people are brought into the circuit court building on Mondays and Wednesdays to determine whether they will serve jury duty. The group, including people who are elderly and disabled, is sent up to the sixth-floor jury assembly room.
The sixth floor only has three exits. Other floors, by contrast, have seven or eight. In the event of a fire, the elevators would shut down, Beach said, leaving people unfamiliar with the building to get out via the few doors available.
The Clayton Fire Department has rated the circuit court building high-risk, in part because it lacks a sprinkler system. It would cost $4 million to install such a system, Beach said.
The building's air-conditioning and heating systems haven't been replaced since the facility opened.
Other issues include a lack of space. Closets have been converted into file storage. The electrical system is maxed out, Beach said. In his courtroom, extension cords sometimes have to be snaked in from another floor so attorneys can make a PowerPoint presentation without cutting off the lights.
Numerous court documents are stored at a facility in Wentzville because space at the Clayton buildings is inadequate, Beach said. Asbestos at the Family Court building has resulted in costly repairs.
Greater security and new Family Court are sought
Passage of Proposition S would allow prospective jurors easier access to the building and keep them on the first floor, Beach said.
It would fund the installation of sprinklers.
Under the proposal, the Family Court building on Brentwood Boulevard would be sold. Proceeds would fund the renovation work in downtown Clayton. A flier published in support of the measure states the changes would save the county "an estimated $750,000 per year in reduced maintenance expenses."
Parking at the Family Court is inadequate, Beach said. People who can't find a space in the Brentwood lot go across the street to park in Clayton neighborhoods. With the proposed changes, people using the circuit court and the new, 250,000-square-foot family court building would have access to the nearby MetroLink parking garage, which Beach said has plenty of capacity.
Gone too would be the annual $350,000 to $400,000 county investment needed to maintain the ailing circuit court garage on which the new Family Court would stand.
Beach is also hopeful the upgrades would improve safety for the court's visitors, including people who come because of domestic violence cases. Currently, victims must sit across the aisle from their attackers during court proceedings. Added space would keep the two groups separate until judges ask to hear a specific case.
He hopes changes would also improve safety for judges and court workers, many of whom are easily accessible because of unprotected hallways. The changes also would provide space for state workers, volunteers and others who help clients regularly.
If approved, construction on Proposition S projects likely would start around the beginning of 2013, Beach said. It would take between 18 and 24 months to complete the work.