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Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark testifies before a legislative committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier earlier this year.

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Windham sheriff drops court security contract

Clark says funding offer for security at Brattleboro, Newfane courthouses doesn’t cover costs

BRATTLEBORO—As of Sept. 1, sheriff’s deputies won’t be protecting either of Windham County’s courthouses.

County Sheriff Keith Clark says he isn’t renewing his department’s courthouse security contract because the state’s offer for fiscal year 2017 doesn’t come close to covering his costs.

Clark agreed to a two-month extension covering July and August, and state officials say they are seeking security providers who are interested in taking over after that.

“While we are disappointed that the two sides could not come to terms, we respect the sheriff’s business decision,” said Matt Riven, chief of finance and administration for the Vermont Court Administrator’s Office. “We have always had a good relationship with the sheriff.”

Beyond the question of who will be guarding front doors and courtrooms at the Brattleboro and Newfane courthouses, the contractual dispute also highlights a debate about court security statewide.

The Court Administrator’s office has asked lawmakers for more resources to protect Vermont’s courthouses, and Clark believes the situation may be getting dangerous.

“It’s going to keep going in the wrong direction until someone gets seriously hurt in one of the courthouses,” Clark said.

Responsibility for security operations

Vermont’s Judicial Branch is in charge of 25 courthouses in the state’s 14 counties. The state Court Administrator is responsible for security operations, which include screening at courthouse entrances; officers stationed in courtrooms; and roving patrols.

State-employed court officers and private contractors provide supplemental security at some locations. But sheriff’s deputies make up the vast majority of Vermont’s courthouse-security workforce.

No matter their affiliation, officials say court security officers are fairly busy. In addition to managing courtrooms and screening for weapons and other contraband, officers reported 174 “security operational incidents” at Vermont courthouses in calendar year 2015, according to the state Court Administrator’s Office.

Those incidents included two stabbings, five assaults, five bomb threats, 21 disorderly conduct complaints and two escapes. Also, “the number of threats against judicial officers, court staff and stakeholders continues to increase,” the court administrator says.

Sheriff’s departments aren’t statutorily mandated to provide court security in Vermont, but do so on a contractual basis. And Clark said he has been unhappy for some time with the state’s security contract, which he said totaled $250,914 last fiscal year.

“Over two years ago, I told the state Court Administrator’s Office that I was subsidizing more and more for court security, and it was getting unsustainable,” Clark said.

Accounting for costs

Clark said the state’s security contract doesn’t take into account his department’s costs for benefits and equipment. Lately, he said, the contract doesn’t even cover all the manpower needed at the county’s courthouses.

Vermont sheriff’s departments rely on contracts to fund much of their operational budgets. Clark said his decision to end the state security contract reflects the need to run his department like a business.

“All I’m asking for is to cover my costs,” Clark said. “We’re looking at all of our contracts.”

Clark calculates that he needs a contractual increase of 10 to 12 percent in fiscal 2017 in order to break even on courthouse security. “I’ve given them a rate. I think it’s a fair rate,” he said. “If they can do better, good for them.”

But Riven said the state can’t meet Clark’s offer.

“The Judiciary offered all sheriffs a 3.5 [percent] rate increase for fiscal year 2017, which in fact was slightly above the legislative funding provided for a 3 percent rate increase,” Riven said. “The Windham County Sheriff counter-offered with an amount that was significantly higher and beyond the Judiciary’s ability to absorb in its budget.”

So, while the Windham County sheriff will continue to transport prisoners to and from court under a separate agreement with the state, the Court Administrator’s Office has issued a request for proposals for someone else to handle courthouse security.

Riven said he couldn’t discuss the selection process, as “we have not come to terms with a vendor” yet. He also said he couldn’t speculate on what future security setups might look like, and he couldn’t say whether a private security contractor would be able to carry weapons in the county’s courthouses.

’A variety of models’

“Across the state, we have a variety of models, with the sheriff’s deputies being armed, but our Judiciary state employee court officers are unarmed,” Riven said. “Given the ongoing [request for proposal] process in Windham, we are not in position to describe how the future security will look in that regard.”

The future of court security across the state is unclear. In late January, Vermont Court Administrator Patricia Gabel issued a report calling for an additional $1.8 million allocated over the next two years to boost court officer coverage.

Gabel’s report notes that a 2014 assessment by the National Center for State Courts found that, for Vermont to achieve “best practices” security standards, it would need 155 full-time equivalent court officers. The state had just 64 such officers as of earlier this year.

In addition to the national organization’s conclusions, local assessments of each county’s courthouse security unanimously concluded that “court security operations and infrastructure suffer from significant deficiencies and needs,” Gabel’s report says.

The court administrator’s report asked the Legislature for an additional $936,000 for court security staffing in fiscal 2017 and proposed another $884,000 boost in fiscal 2018. That would allow the court officer workforce to expand by 35, officials estimated.

“The Judiciary strongly urges the Legislature to provide annual funding for reasonable cost increases for the sheriffs’ contracts,” the report says. “Absent such increases, it is unlikely that the sheriffs will be able or willing to recruit additional deputies to meet these expanded coverage needs.”

Allocating funds

The Legislature did allocate an extra $615,000 in fiscal 2017 for court security infrastructure improvements — in other words, physical changes like cameras, alarms, and ballistic protection. Riven called that a “significant down payment” toward the court system’s capital budget needs, which exceed $2 million.

But there was no increased appropriation for court officers. That leads directly to the Windham County contract debate, and Riven wondered whether there could be ripple effects in other parts of the state.

“The Windham situation raises a larger issue as to whether the Legislature will fund future rate increases for sheriffs’ security contracts at a level that will be acceptable to the sheriffs in other counties,” Riven said.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she wasn’t familiar with the details of the Windham County security contract.

“But I do believe that the state has underfunded security at the courthouses,” White said, adding that “we need to do better.”

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, said legislators “discuss the issue of security expenditures for courthouses quite a bit” in her Senate Institutions Committee.

“Part of the issue of funding for courthouses around the state is complicated by the fact that some courthouses are not strictly state facilities,” Balint said. “And there has not been a straightforward protocol for us to follow as to how the multi-jurisdiction courthouses are paid for both in terms of security and repairs and upkeep.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #365 (Wednesday, July 13, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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