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Campaign launched for Prop S, $100 million bond issue to overhaul county courts buildings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2012 - The escalator doesn’t work, there have been four electrical fires in the past six months, and a recent broken water pipe shut down St. Louis County’s courts for half a day.

And if too many lawyers fire up a laptop in a courtroom, the power can go out.

That’s the dire picture being painted by county Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, the county’s judges, top law-enforcement officials, legal advocacy groups and lawyers as they make their case for Proposition S, a proposed $100 million bond issue on the April 3 ballot.

“Technology has long gone past this building here,’’ said McCulloch, during a news conference this week to outline why the region’s legal and law-forcement community are pressing the issue on TV, radio and in the mail.

Proposition S would pay for a massive renovation of the county courts building in downtown Clayton and the construction of a new family-court building on what’s now a neighboring parking lot.

The bond issue wouldn’t increase property taxes because it would replace the just-paid-off bonds used to finance construction of the nearby county jail. The switch would mean, however, that the owner of a $200,000 home in the county would forgo a $10 drop in annual property tax, beginning in 2014, as a result of the paid-off bonds for the jail.

To pass, Proposition S – because it’s a bond issue – needs the approval of 57.1 percent of the county voters who cast ballots April 3.

And that percentage can be tough to obtain. An earlier version of Prop S, including a new animal shelter and other items, failed back in 2008.

Advocates hope more county voters can be persuaded to support the bond issue this time if they are presented with how bad the physical conditions are in the county’s current judicial facilities.

Officials note that the county currently is spending $750,000 in maintenance costs that they say could largely be eliminated by the new construction.

McCulloch, among others, points out that St. Louis County’s court filings have increased 500 percent since the building was originally opened in 1972. The number of juveniles now handled in the system exceeds the combined annual totals for St. Louis and Kansas City and the counties of Jackson and St. Charles.

While being careful not to endorse the measure (judges cannot do so), Family Court Judge Douglas Beach points out that the current family-justice center has asbestos and that the courts building has a number of safety issues. Broken-down escalators are typical in the courts building because parts are no longer available to keep them running.

Clayton’s assistant fire marshal, Paul Mercurio, says the county courts’ building also doesn’t have the automatic sprinkler system now required in similar new construction. As a result, even small fires require the whole building to be evacuated – which happened recently because of a microwave oven.

The lockup systems for juveniles in the family-justice center is dangerous, he said, because each cell now must be manually unlocked. No automatic system unlocks all the cells in case of an emergency, such as a fire or earthquake.

The county courts can’t comply with government mandates to switch to electronic filing, says Beach, because the electrical system can’t provide the power needed. Special electrical lines have had to be snaked in for trials that require many computers.

But an even bigger concern, says McCulloch, are the security problems plaguing the courts building for two decades. In 1992, Kenneth Baumruk – a defendant in a divorce case – brought in two guns and began shooting during the court proceedings. He shot nine people, killing his estranged wife.

Since then, said McCulloch, everyone entering the courthouse has to go through a security checkpoint and a metal detector. Trouble is, the way the building is set up, everyone has to go through one entrance – creating bottlenecks on busy court days.

Once inside the courts building, said McCulloch, security is too lax because of the way offices and facilities are set up. “Once you’re in, everyone has access to everything,” he said.

And that includes people. Representatives of several groups, including the Crime Victims Advocacy Center, noted that the courtrooms are not set up to protect victims from accused assailants.

“Because of space restrictions, victims of crimes and domestic violence often sit literally shoulder-to-shoulder,” said Julie Lang, the advocacy center’s executive director.

McCulloch said such tight quarters “presents a potentially dangerous situation.”

So far, no organized groups are opposing Proposition S. The pro-Prop S campaign is just now getting underway, with a budget of about $300,000.

Supportive fliers were sent out to frequent voters’ households this week. Radio and cable TV ads are soon to follow.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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