By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – Nobody likes moving, but the end result can be rewarding, as Bell County employees found out Monday as they began their move into the new district courts building in Belton.
A steady procession of dollies and carts carrying various office equipment paraded in and out of the building as a few workers were left cleaning and putting the final touches on the building.
Prosecutors, judges, assistants, secretaries and court clerks could be seen decked out in blue jeans, setting up their personal space and preparing for a week of unpacking files and organizing their departments.
"Folks that will be using (the building) are very proud of it," Commissioner John Fisher said.
District court coordinators Joanna Staten and Paula King surveyed their office, smiling at the large and accommodating space.
The office is twice the size of the old one, allowing for five cubicles, a table and two chairs for visitors. The office downtown was dark and small with three desks and a copy machine and filing cabinet crammed in.
"This is great," Staten said smiling. "We're just trying to decide which desks we want."
This office, like all the others, is cloistered behind secure doors that can only be opened with a swipe card issued individually to each employee.
The entire building is compartmentalized to control different areas.
Inmates will no longer be paraded in front of the coordinators' office to go to court. They are brought up by a secure elevator to their designated courtroom and placed in a holding cell until they go before the judge.
"There will be no co-mingling between the defendant and public," Commissioner Tim Brown said.
The Bell County Justice Complex on Loop 121 was turned over to the county a week ago, and employees who work in the district courts building will have the rest of the week to get set up and learn their way around their new high-tech home.
The new 88,000-square-foot complex is more than twice the size of the current building in downtown Belton and far more luxurious and technologically advanced with security features similar to airport security.
"We're going from a building with virtually no security to this," Fisher said, looking around at the metal detectors and x-ray machines in the foyer. "It will take some time getting used to it on all of our parts."
Those who are called to jury duty will report to the 146th District Court, the largest of the five courtrooms with seating for more than 300 people. And potential jurors will no longer have to park miles away.
"When we access people to serve on a jury we are giving them a place to park and making their life a little bit easier to serve," Fisher said, commenting on the large parking lot outside.
Walking the halls of the complex, pencil and paper in hand, Brown inspected the building from the perspective of an architect, looking for any minor details that needed attention.
"It's a beautiful building that just has the same problems that all new buildings do," Fisher said. "It just needs little tweaks."
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.
The governor is expected to appoint a judge in January 2007.
Construction on the complex started in January 2005, but the idea for it has been around much longer and has been a popular topic in the county – on both sides of the fence.
Since the issue 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.
After two failed bond elections, commissioners approved using $27 million in limited tax notes not to exceed $30 million at 1 cent on the tax rate. The use of limited tax notes, which do not require a vote, infuriated some Bell County residents who felt officials were ignoring the wishes of the voter.
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.
Voters defeated the bond election, and 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.
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 all is said and done, it will cost about 4.5 cents to do two-thirds of what the original 2.5 cents would have done.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org