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Safety of renovation plans is questioned

March 15, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Architectural consultants are looking into adding another elevator for prisoner transport at the Washington County Courthouse after a judge and the county bar association president questioned the safety of the existing renovation plans, County Director of Public Works Gary Rohrer said Monday.

Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell and Bar Association of Washington County President Arthur Schneider sent letters in February to Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook requesting a review of the plans, which they said do not provide for the safe movement of prisoners within the building.

McDowell said in his letter, dated Feb. 28, that it would be "a grave mistake" to follow through with the plans, under which Sheriff's Department deputies would take prisoners through a common hallway to existing holding cells, exposing "victims, witnesses, jurors, clerks and other people to the dangers of inmates or may incite violent reactions by victims and their families who may see prisoners being transported through the hallway."

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McDowell said Monday that the elevator, under the current plans, would open into an area where three judges' chambers and a courtroom exist, and those would have to be locked down when prisoners were being transported.

Schneider said in his letter to Snook, dated Feb. 17, that "We are extremely concerned about safety in the courthouse. This plan in its current form will result in greatly enhanced danger to the public in the courthouse ..."

Rohrer said that six to nine months ago, Sheriff Charles Mades and Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III, administrative judge, approved the plan under a consensus that the inmate transportation issue could be resolved.

Wright was unavailable for comment Monday.

Mades did not return calls left at his home Monday night.

Snook said he met with Wright and Mades about two weeks ago and got a better understanding of the problem. He said he is waiting for results of the consultants' research.

Plans for the $4.2 million courthouse renovation, which is scheduled to take 16 months, include the addition of a fifth courtroom to the second floor of the annex - a three-story 1962 courthouse addition facing Summit Avenue - and the addition of an elevator between the annex and the main courthouse that would serve the general public, Rohrer said. Construction is to be completed by December, he said.

Rohrer said architectural consultants with Bushey Feight Morin Architects Inc., who performed the design work and the feasibility study for the project, are looking into the possibility of adding another elevator for prisoner transport.

The proposed elevator, which would run on the east side of the building, would carry prisoners from the basement, where new holding cells are being built, to the third floor of the annex. The elevator would open up into an existing holding cell area.

Rohrer said he should have the consultants' conclusions in about two weeks. It's important that renovation work on the fifth courtroom stay on track so the county can remain eligible for funding for a fifth judge, he said. If the elevator proposal works, its installation would not interfere with the existing project, he said.

Rohrer said he knew the Friday shooting death of a judge and a court reporter in an Atlanta courthouse would bring the issue to the forefront.

"When events like this arise, you have to step back and look while you're involved in these processes," Rohrer said.

The project is on budget, but the addition of another elevator would place the project overbudget, he said.

"We've truly maxed out this facility," Rohrer said. "I don't know what more we can do here."

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