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County officials discuss safety concerns





County officials have used safety and security as main selling points for renovations to the Ellis County Courthouse as part of a proposed county sales tax.

That point was driven home last month when a defendant attempted to flee the courtroom after his bond was revoked, only to be stopped by two law enforcement officers. He was subdued in the hallway, which was empty because it was after hours for county offices. An hour earlier, the hallway could have been filled with innocent bystanders.

"The prisoners are there for a court hearing, and they're mixed right in with the general public," said District Judge Glenn Braun. "Witnesses are there, family members, and unfortunately, friends of the defendants could all intermingle with the defendants themselves.

"That provides lots of opportunities for danger."

If the 0.5-percent sales tax is passed in a May 14 special election, defendants would not come in contact with members of the public while in court.

"When we bring inmates over (to the courthouse), they will be taken directly from the jail without going through public areas," Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin said of the proposed new layout for the courthouse and county jail.

The sales tax also would pay for a new EMS/rural fire building ($3.8 million), as well as the expansion and renovation of the county jail, Law Enforcement Center and courthouse ($8.5 million). Total cost would be approximately $14.3 million, once interest costs are added. The tax would sunset after five years or when the project is paid off, whichever comes sooner.

Harbin said the courthouse, in use since 1942, and the jail, in service for the past 37 years, have been outgrown.

"It's something that's needed," said Harbin, sheriff for the last 16 years. "We've used everything we have for as long as we could, made the best of everything. It's time to improve it."

When Harbin was a jailer in 1980, the average daily prison population was in single digits at the jail, which has 30 beds. On average, 16 inmates are housed out of county every day, which cost the county $209,000 in 2012.

Harbin said the new jail would have approximately 75 beds, and the county would be able to house female prisoners.

The new jail also would segregate inmates when needed.

"They're violent toward others, or people who don't get along with other inmates," Harbin said. "You have ones who will prey on the other inmates."

Harbin understands the general public doesn't normally think about needs at the courthouse and jail.

"Unless something bad happens, like the situation at the courthouse the other day," he said.