Columbia County leaders want more security inside the 2-year-old Administration Building in Portage to ease county employees’ concerns about the behavior of some of the building’s visitors.
County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage told the County Board’s Public Safety Committee Monday that taking extra security precautions could not wait, because some employees are concerned for their safety.
“I think the need is there, I really do,” Gove said.
The Administration Building, 112 E. Edgewater St., has been open for business since June 2017. It houses non-court-related county offices such as the clerk’s office, veterans services, the treasurer, the register of deeds and planning and zoning. The building also where the County Board and most of its committees hold their meetings.
Only in recent months have there been reports of visitors wandering through the building, seemingly aimlessly, or “raising hell” in offices, according to Gove.
For example, Gove said, there was a recent incident involving a person who went into the county clerk’s office on the first floor and verbally berated employees in that office.
Gove did not indicate that any of the recent incidents included threats to use a weapon. The usual business hours at the Administration Building are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
When the building was constructed as part of Columbia County’s $46 million building project, the design included a security room near the main entrance off East Edgewater Street.
Currently, no one staffs that room. But Gove said he would like Sheriff Roger Brandner to propose a plan to have at least one deputy provide security in the building.
According to Gove, there are no plans yet to add security equipment to the Administration Building, such as a metal detector or X-ray machine. The public would continue to have access to the three Administration Building floors where county offices are housed.
The subject of extra security came up after Brandner proposed, at the Public Safety Committee meeting, to raise the wages for courthouse security staff by $2 per hour in the county’s 2020 budget. He said he would like to hire one or two additional courthouse security officers.
Brandner said the cost of raising the hourly wages by $2 for the nine existing court services officers would cost the county an additional $18,000.
The seven officers that are certified to carry a firearm currently make $18 per hour, while one officer certified to carry a stunning device is paid $14 per hour, and one officer not certified to carry any kind of weapon is paid $12 per hour.
Brandner also said he wants to hire two additional court security officers, both certified to carry a firearm. Seven of the nine current courthouse officers are certified to carry a gun.
Gove said an officer assigned to the Administration Building would not necessarily need to be certified to carry any type of weapon. He said he just wants someone available for a timely response to incidents.
Gove asked whether a security officer could be assigned to the Administration Building during daytime business hours before 2019 is over.
Brandner proposed the committee make budgetary changes effective Oct. 1, to allow for the increased wages and allow a courthouse security officer to begin working at the Administration Building then.
“I agree, something needs to be done. The need is there,” Brandner said.
Two committee members proposed to hold a vote on the matter at Monday’s meeting.
Committee Chairman Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville suggested tabling the motion until a future meeting, because the subject of Administration Building security was not listed on the meeting’s official agenda.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Krista Miller advised a motion and vote could be made, because the discussion of the matter fell under the general agenda item of “court services unit,” one of whom could be tapped to provide services at the Administration Building.
In a 4-0 vote, with two abstentions, a motion passed to allow Brandner and his office to move forward with his proposal. Brandner said he would begin working with the county’s Accounting Department to work the changes into the current year’s budget. Pufahl and Supervisor Gary Leatherberry of the town of Dekorra abstained, without specifying why.
“Thank you for thinking of the security of our employees at our other buildings,” Pufahl said.
In a related matter, the County Board’s Executive Committee on Monday voted unanimously to buy new X-ray and metal detecting security equipment for the courthouse, 400 De Witt St., from Astro Physics Inc., of Houston, Texas, for $27,600.
Max Jenatscheck, a deputy with the courthouse security unit, said the existing X-ray equipment is about 16 years old, and has recently begun “glitching” frequently.
“If those machines go down, we’re in a load of trouble,” he said.
The Astro Physics bid was one of three, which ranged from $25,799 to $47,200. Jenatscheck said the Astro Physics bid was best because the prices includes a warranty for parts and labor and training for the officers who will use the equipment.
The equipment should be up and running in three to four weeks, he said.