Security at the Morton J. Holbrook Judicial Center is “extremely inadequate,” Sheriff Keith Cain told a community priorities forum Thursday morning at the Commerce Center, 200 E. Third St.
“It’s a problem waiting to happen,” Circuit Judge Jay Wethington said. “Last month, during a murder case, we almost had a riot in the hall.”
Cain, Wethington and Judge-Executive Al Mattingly all pushed to keep a new judicial center on the community’s list of priorities for the Kentucky General Assembly.
City and county officials have been pushing for a new center since 2013.
There was also discussion of needed highway projects and getting more “home rule” for cities.
Candance Castlen Brake, president of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce that sponsored the forum, said the chamber board, the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. board and city and county officials will also have input in creating the final list to be presented to local legislators.
Mayor Tom Watson suggested that once the list is compiled, local leaders should meet with area legislators to see if there were any priorities that they think would be impossible to get approved.
In that case, he said, another priority should be inserted.
Wethington said two family courts that were badly needed have been added to the judicial center, which he said was already overcrowded.
“We have six or seven courts operating now,” he said.
The building has only one metal detector, and it needs three, Wethington said.
He said there is only one elevator, so defendants, witnesses and jurors all ride together.
“The money the state has spent so far is just a Band-Aid,” Wethington said.
He said juvenile defendants are held in the same holding cells as adults because there is no room for separate facilities.
Mattingly said the state has to do a needs assessment before a new center can be built.
He said he’s been requesting one for three years without success.
“It’s a very serious problem,” Mattingly said.
He said parking is also a problem with several hundred people going to the judicial center at one time.
Wethington said when both divisions of Circuit Court have trials on the same day, 200 people may be standing in the hallways.
Cain said three full-time deputies and seven armed court security personnel are assigned to the judicial center along with 17 part-time security personnel who aren’t armed.
But, he said, “We’re down five or six people now. It’s a major concern for us. Sometimes, we have to pull officers off the street for court security.”
Cain said the state only approves $9 an hour for “potentially the most dangerous” assignment.
“They pay their lawn service more than security,” Mattingly said.
The sheriff’s office has to supplement the pay for court security officers since the state hasn’t raised the pay in five or six years, he said.
Transportation priorities discussed included turning the Audubon Parkway into I-369, a spur of I-69.
Mattingly said Owensboro has been on “a dead-end street.”
But if the community can get I-369 built along with I-165, “we’ll have two ways to get materials in and out” on interstates, he said.
Local leaders also want I-165 extended all the way to the William H. Natcher Bridge.
That would create an interstate all the way across the county.
Watson said the community needs to continue to work with Indiana officials to get U.S. 231 upgraded to interstate standards from the Natcher Bridge to I-64.
City Manager Nate Pagan said the state needs to allow cities like Owensboro to have more say in the taxes they can levy.
The current statutes are based on “an arcane structure based on population in the 1930s and ’40s,” he said. “It’s rather frustrating. Elizabethtown has sources of revenue that we don’t.”
Smaller cities can impose a restaurant tax for certain projects, but Owensboro can’t.
Local officials also want the authority to have a local option sales tax, which cities can’t now impose.
“Folks in Frankfort make decisions for us instead of letting us make our own decisions,” Pagan said.
Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, firstname.lastname@example.org