Liberty County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to close all but one public entrance to the county courthouse in Liberty. The changes will not go into effect until commissioners determine how to fund the recommendations suggested by a committee that included County Attorney Matthew Poston and District Attorney Logan Pickett.
“Manpower is the most expensive part of the equation. I think you would be able to stretch your manpower a lot more if you close the courthouse down to one public entrance and one employee entrance. That would make it a lot easier to guard,” Poston said.
Some of the proposals being considered are an employee card system and a barrier to funnel traffic at the public entrance. Poston also suggested using non-commissioned security guards to fill two of the five positions needed for the courthouse security plan. The non-commissioned security guards would be a less expensive alternative to licensed peace officers.
The courthouse security plan received mixed reviews from two residents during public comments at the start of the meeting. Ray Ansley told commissioners they should consider empowering every employee in the courthouse by arming them.
“One weapon to consider is putting a can of wasp spray on every desk. Wasp spray can disorient someone at 10-20 feet,” he said, reading from prepared comments. “I believe the liabilities, if you hit the wrong person with the spray, would be minimal.”
Former Liberty County Judge Lloyd “Tookie” Kirkham spoke in favor of increasing courthouse security and cited an incident he experienced as county judge as proof.
“I had a guy come in and say, ‘Hey, you gave everything to my ex-wife in our divorce,’” Kirkham said. “I said, ‘Hey, you have the wrong judge.’”
The man reportedly left his office, giving Kirkham time to notify authorities and warn the judge.
“I believe in protecting yourself, very much. I carried a .357 with me every day when I worked in the courthouse. I still do,” he said.
Kirkham, who fills in periodically for Chambers County Jimmy Silvia, said that Liberty County could take some cues from Chambers County where people must pass through a metal detector to enter the courthouse. He suggested that Liberty County use some of the metal detectors he purchased as county judge two decades ago as they are still operational.
“I am encouraging the court to vote in favor of this. It’s about protecting your county. The little inconvenience that it might put on some citizens will be outweighed tremendously,” he said.
Commissioners approved the security plan, assigning authority over it to District Attorney Logan Pickett, who, Poston said, is willing to accept the responsibility.
In other business, a report of the county’s audit from the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, was presented by Leann Brents of Swaim, Brents and Associates. The report shows that Liberty County is managing its resources well but is in a negative net position because of retirees’ benefits.
“Your internal controls are great. Your budget and financials, and taking care of your resources coming in and out are great … The bottom line is, things went very well. There are some things you need to consider as you can afford them,” she said.
Brents told commissioners that the county’s total pension liability is $75 million but is only funded to $62 million, with a $13 million shortfall.
County Judge Jay Knight asked Brents, “So overall, we need to start funding more?”
She agreed and suggested that the county is promising things in the future it cannot fund.
“You are creating a hole for yourself,” she said.
In 2017, the county brought in $42.5 million, all of which was spent, according to the audit.
“That’s fine. That’s the way government works, and it’s considered a balanced budget. Everything that comes in is balance-driven and you want to make sure you don’t overspend your budget,” Brents said.
Commissioners also authorized the creation of a second school resource officer for Tarkington ISD and a school resource officer for Hardin ISD. The districts will pay 70 percent of the resource officer’s salary and benefits and the county will pick up the cost for the remaining 30 percent.
Pct. 3 Constable Mark Davison, whose office would oversee the school resource officer for Hardin ISD, asked that that county purchase a new patrol vehicle, so he can give the officer one of the other vehicles in his fleet. Pct. 4 Commissioner Leon Wilson said he is not opposed to the county purchasing the vehicle but asked that Davison first look at some used vehicle options as the fiscal year will end soon and a new budget cycle will begin.
Davison reminded the court that he and his deputy constable have contributed roughly $120,000 in fines this year and more than half of that ends up in the county’s coffers.
Commissioners asked for the item to be tabled until the next meeting in two weeks.
“That will give us a little time to see where we stand in the budget,” Wilson said.
An executive session at the end of the meeting was held to discuss litigation against Arkema, a chemical manufacturing plant in Crosby, and GEO Group, operator of the Liberty County Jail. Arkema is being sued by Liberty and Harris counties for damages caused when unstable chemicals at the plant ignited during Hurricane Harvey flooding.
Poston said after the meeting that the damages to Liberty County were to the environment and county roads. The roads were damaged after traffic, including heavy trucks, was diverted from major highways to county roads.
Regarding GEO Group, Poston said commissioners have already given him the authority to pursue litigation and he expects to file a suit later this week.
According to Poston, GEO Group has given the county notice that they intend to cease operations of the Liberty County Jail in September, two years shy of fulfilling a five-year contract with Liberty County.
Vanesa Brashier, email@example.com