Members of the Knox County Council this week closed the final funding gap to implement a full courthouse security overhaul.
A team of elected officials and law enforcement leaders have, for more than a year, been leading a committee aimed at improving security measures at the courthouse. And for a long time, it had very little to speak of.
A year ago, commission president Kellie Streeter secured a $76,000 homeland security grant which paid for a majority of those pending improvements, but the committee still needed about $60,000 for the purchase of electrical doors that would communicate with a new badge system set to be used by all county employees and applicable vendors.
The county council this week approved $37,000, which will cover the purchase of new doors, and county clerk David Shelton said he's found money in his own budget to cover the rest, specifically doors at the courthouse annex.
He's also looking to secure a state grant aimed at making election centers more secure; it's possible, he said, that he will be able to reimburse the county's $37,000 appropriation in time.
With all of the money now in place, Streeter said the committee, in cooperation with Sheriff Doug Vantlin, will begin implementing the changes.
And they will be significant, she said.
Soon, visitors to the courthouse will be met with new signage directing them away from the Eighth Street side of the building to the Seventh Street side instead; that's the one with the ramp and, technically, the courthouse's main entrance.
That said, the existing parking lot, by design, naturally funnels visitors to the Eighth Street door.
“If we change the entrance, we know we'll have to move parking around,” Streeter said. “But that's not paramount at this time.”
Streeter said visitors to the courthouse, too, will begin to see the installation of metal detectors inside the main entrance, although she doesn't expect them to be in operation until after the first of the year.
She said beyond signage, the committee plans to actually make very few changes until after Election Day on Nov. 5.
“We're going to physically start putting our new measures in place,” she said. “But no doors will be locked, no ropes put up, until January.
“Or at least that's our target date.”
Also next month, Knox County Emergency Management Agency director John Streeter will begin issuing to all county employees a new badge. That badge will then be synced with the courthouse's new security system, allowing employees access only to those areas necessary to do their jobs.
Each department, too, will have its own logo, so security personnel can, at a glance, determine who belongs to where.
The security improvements actually began with a needs assessment, which looked both at what needed to be changed and how to do so all while respecting the courthouse's historic integrity.
The grant funds were then used to purchase appropriate equipment, specifically an x-ray machine, a magnetrometer (a type of metal detector), hand wands and even lockers for visitors to the courthouse to use.
County elected officials also spoke at length during recent budget hearings about the need for an additional deputy — or two — to man all of the new equipment, but Streeter said, in the end, the council opted not to fund any new officers.
“So that is the top priority of discussion at our next security meeting,” Streeter said, adding that it's been scheduled for Nov. 6.
It's a lot of change, although change a long time coming, Streeter said, and she's confident the public won't feel too many of the growing pains.
“We do not want to inflict any sort of inconvenience to the public that we serve,” she said. “So no matter how paramount we find security measures that need to be taken, we still want to make sure we aren't in such a hurry that we do something to make someone late for a court hearing or (affect) a taxpayer who has to come to the courthouse and has to wait in line for 15 minutes.
“It's going to be a transition, it's going to be a change,” she said. “I know it will both be accepted and cause some grief, as do any changes we implement.
“But our purpose is to firmly make sure employees and patrons are in a safe environment.”