The county council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to the addition of two deputies to the Knox County Sheriff's Department, the final step in a two-year process to implement new security measures at the courthouse.
Commissioner Kellie Streeter has been working over the last two years alongside a special security-focused committee to implement new protocol at the courthouse; much of the new equipment is in place — or will be coming soon — and the final piece was to hire two new deputies for the courthouse to help staff it all.
“We've completed all of the hardware, software, planning, had team meetings,” Streeter said. “So now we're implementing the operational side.
“And I need manpower.”
Streeter and Sheriff Doug Vantlin last fall during the county council's annual budget hearings — two days over the course of which members hashed out the 2020 spending plan — proposed the addition of two deputies but were denied the additional funding.
So Streeter looked to the commissioners' own budget and found the money — about $67,000 per deputy — from what was set aside for county health insurance costs.
“We'll see some savings in our health insurance costs, so we'd like to transfer that money to set up these new positions,” she said. “We have budgeted $2 million in health insurance costs, but looking at claims, costs, that's what I'm proposing we do.
“I want to do everything I can to operate within my budget and not request new monies, especially not in January,” she said.
County council members didn't immediately accept her method of funding the deputies, but they did give the go ahead to Vantlin to hire them.
“Leave no stone unturned and don't delay,” council president Bob Lechner told the sheriff.
Lechner said the council will take discussions back up when it meets again in February and decide from where it will draw the needed funding.
Members could accept the commissioners' proposal — or go a different route altogether.
Streeter said she understands fully that her funding method would be a temporary one. Moving forward, the council would have to identify a long-term source for the two additional deputies.
But taking the money from expected health insurance savings, she said, would give them all a year to think on it.
“Then we can talk about it during budget hearings this year,” she said. “I know it's not ideal, hiring outside of the budget we've already made and approved.
“But (the deputies) didn't get approved last year,” Streeter said. “I'm at the end of the line here, and I've got to get some guys trained and ready to roll.”
All visitors to the courthouse will soon be routed through the Seventh Street side; the Eighth Street entrance, the side visitors tend to use, will soon be blocked and reserved only for employees.
Recent visitors to the courthouse entering from that Seventh Street side have been met with a sign directing them through the south door. Soon, the middle door will be closed permanently and the north door — the one closest to the courthouse ramp — will be reserved only for handicapped visitors.
Metal detectors and an X-ray machine have already been set up.
A year ago, Streeter secured a $76,000 homeland security grant that paid for a majority of the security improvements. The county council just two months ago offered an additional $37,000, and county clerk David Shelton found money within his own budget to complete the cost of installing electronic doors throughout the courthouse, ones both exterior and interior.
Streeter said beginning today, the security vendors and contractors the county is using for installation will begin doing a final walk-through; she expects actual installation of the doors to begin next week and take about a month.
Once that's complete, a vendor will set up on site and begin issuing new IDs — special badges — that will allow employees access into the courthouse and to their respective offices.
“It will take a couple of weeks to do that, and we're hoping that, by then, we'll have the two new deputies hired and ready to start training,” she said. “We're likely looking at March or April.”
With the addition of the two new deputies, the courthouse would have five full-time officers to oversee security both at the doors and in the courtrooms.