By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – Within a few days, Bell County officials will assume control of the highly anticipated – and much debated – new district courts building .
Considering the amount of construction and interior work unfinished, it is hard to imagine that county employees will soon be moving in.
However, for those who work in the outdated building in downtown Belton, the move can't come soon enough.
"Our problem is room," said First Assistant District Attorney Murff Bledsoe. "We just don't have any."
The district attorney's office currently calls the third floor home – crowded quarters where every inch of space is being used.
But that will change May 15.
The new district attorney's office is a spacious suite of offices with plenty of room for growth.
Grand juries will now have a large, comfortable room with a break room and plenty of seating to deliberate on indictments. Prosecutors will no longer have to find creative places to have meetings or interviews. Conference rooms and interview rooms abound.
Throughout the building, each office and courtroom is decorated with cherry-stained wood and neutral colors of beige and slate blue.
Both the public and employees will have two elevators . For those interested in getting a cardio workout, stairs are available at either end of the building and there is a sweeping staircase in the lobby.
The new courts building will house the four district judges as well as the newly created 426th District Court. In June 2005, Gov. Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1189 allowing for the creation of a fifth district court that will be a court of a general jurisdiction, covering both criminal and civil cases.
In January 2007, the governor will appoint a judge to preside over the new court.
In addition to alleviating growing pains, the new building was built with safety in mind.
Situated on a 76-acre lot on Loop 121, the 88,000-square-foot building is a technologically advanced facility designed with state-of-the-art security features.
Each person – whether visitor or employee – will be required to pass through a metal detector and have belongings scanned through an X-ray machine, a security feature the current courts building does not have.
After a successful screening, individuals may enter the public areas of the building – district clerk's office, courtrooms on the second and third floors, law libraries, lobby of the district attorney's office on the second floor, and district courts coordinator.
But the added security will force behavioral changes for visitors. No longer will individuals be able to casually stroll into judges' chambers or rub shoulders with inmates awaiting trial.
"Each area is compartmentalized," County Judge Jon Burrows said. "There is controlled access to different areas."
Employees can access controlled areas with a magnetic swipe card unique to each person.
Lost employee cards will be invalidated.
"If an employee lost a key, we would have to re-key the entire building," Burrows said.
Perhaps the most significant change in security will be inmate processing.
Currently, several inmates are brought into the courtroom at a time and sit in the gallery with the public behind the attorneys to await sentencing.
Now, inmates waiting to go before a judge will be kept in a holding area with cells between courtrooms.
"There will be total isolation of prisoners from the public," Burrows said.
Deputies will bring inmates to the jail and drive into a secure sallyport to offload their prisoners. Next, inmates will be taken to holding cells in the basement of the building to wait for their turn upstairs.
The area is outfitted with security cameras designed to detect movement.
From the holding cells, prisoners will be escorted down a long hallway to one of two secure elevators that will deliver them to one of the courtroom holding cells.
Since the idea was conceived, the new courts building has raised the hackles of some Bell County residents who have accused county commissioners of ignoring the wishes of the voters.
Three years ago, the commissioners came up with plans for a $61.1 million court complex that would have included a jail addition, district courts building, and county courts and offices. The tax impact would have been 2.5 cents per $100 valuation. Thus, the average annual tax bill on a $100,000 home would have increased about $25.
Belton attorney John Galligan led a failed petition drive to force the commissioners to put the plan to a vote.
Although the commissioners were not required to hold an election, they did, and on Sept. 13, 2003, voters defeated the bond election.
Commissioners tried again on May 15, 2004. A bond for $46 million that would have covered a jail addition and a district courts building was presented to the voters and again it was defeated. The tax impact would have been 1 cent per $100.
Finally, commissioners were able to approve $27 million in limited tax notes not to exceed $30 million to fund the new building and the renovation of the current building.
"The courthouse is erected by Jon Burrows and his little band of commissioners over the wishes of the people of Bell County," Galligan said. "The only election they recognize is the one that put them in power."
Galligan ran against Burrows for county judge in the March Republican primary election, losing with 35 percent of the vote.
Last month, the commissioners approved the building of a new 630-bed jail facility to alleviate overcrowding at the county jail.
The jail facility will be built next to the district courts building with an underground tunnel to transport inmates between the two buildings.
The same financing method used to fund the courts building will be used to fund the new jail addition. Estimated cost is $42 million, adding 3.5 cents to the tax rate per $100 property valuation. Annual taxes on a $100,000 property would increase about $35.
When the projects are completed, the county will have spent 1 cent more to do two-thirds of what the original 2.5-cent project would have done.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org