With courts slowly reopening after the closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Crawford County commissioners heard from Circuit Clerk Karen Harlan last week on plans being put into place to hear cases while still following requirements for social distancing.
At the commission meeting on May 19, Harlan talked to the commission about ordering a pager system similar to those used in restaurants so there wouldn’t be as many people in the courthouse or annex at one time. The idea would be for people to check in, receive a pager, and leave the buildings until they are paged for their time to appear in court.
Currently, only 10 people are allowed in a courtroom at one time, and that is very limiting when court personnel are included in the number.
She noted the cost for 80 pagers was around $5,200, and she would still need to order the laptop computers to assist with the process. Harlan will also plan to have masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer available.
Another issue is the disinfecting between people that will need to occur in the courtrooms, along with extra cleaning around the courthouse itself. Harlan noted the current judge’s order is to sanitize the area after each person appears in court. Presiding Commissioner Leo Sanders said the county maintenance worker wouldn’t have time for additional cleaning duties.
Harlan recommended utilizing additional staff to run the paging system and to take care of the extra cleaning duties. Both would be expenses that could be paid for out of the CARES Act funding the county has received to assist with unexpected expenses related to the COVID-19 crisis.
Harlan also proposed some security upgrades to the annex courtroom to provide barriers, including anti-ballistic glass and service windows for the clerks in the office. She noted she wasn’t asking for funds from the county’s Capital Improvement Fund, and should be able to pay for the project with money from the Law Enforcement Restitution Fund, the Law Library Fund, some of her own funds, and perhaps some of the CARES Act funding.
Sanders and County Clerk John Martin agreed that there wasn’t funding available from the Capital Improvement Fund, and Harlan noted she was simply requesting approval to modify the county’s building, not asking for funds.
Harlan also requested permission to look into removing a partition wall in the upstairs portion of the main courthouse in order to create a larger space for the Jefferson Courtroom and allow for current social distancing needs.
Sanders asked her to check on funding sources and to get bids and bring the information back to the commission. She reiterated that she was not asking for money from the commission, just for approval to modify the buildings.
Although Sanders didn’t believe CARES Act funding could be used for the work in the annex, Prosecuting Attorney Dave Smith encouraged the commission to look into that possibility. Smith stated, since the idea was to create separation, that could fall under COVID-19 requirements, and the method of separation (i.e. ballistic materials) should not be a factor. He said the guidelines “intentionally made qualifying expenses very broad” and there were “just a few prohibitions.” He said expenses should be covered “as long as it’s related to the COVID situation either by directly affecting it or through general suppression.”
The CARES Act funds can’t be used to replace loss of tax revenue, to supplement the budget, or for general expenditures. But Smith noted, “As long as you can reasonably tie what you’re doing to COVID, it’s fair game.”
Sanders said that in his discussions with Lesa Mizell, emergency management director for Crawford County, the priority for the funding is hospitals, then it moves down to first responders. He urged caution in hoping for funds to pay for other items, including Smith’s request to replace the entry door to his office with a physical barrier that included speaker pucks.
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