By design, the rooms used by York County’s judges, prosecutors and law enforcement personnel are normally sealed off from the public. Sensitive files, information and people need to be kept secure behind a combination of locks, glass and metal detectors.
But Sunday was an exception. Since these officials are asking the public to approve a $90 million bond issue on Nov. 3 that would pay for facilities needed at the county’s public safety offices, they opened their doors for a few hours Sunday afternoon to allow ordinary voters to get a sense of just what their needs are.
In the process, citizens got an inside look into the Moss Justice Center in York – the main headquarters for the sheriff’s and solicitor’s offices, as well as courtrooms and other county offices – along with the clerk of court and Family Court facilities in Rock Hill, and the county’s public works and recycling facility.
These facilities would be the main beneficiaries of a “yes” vote on Nov. 3, adding space and security features that visitors got a chance to evaluate for themselves.
One of the main items the bond would address is security features at the Moss Justice Center, where multiple government offices are accessible from one long hallway with multiple doors open to the public. York County resident Selina Woodard said the wide open space was unsettling to her just entering the building, unsure where she was supposed to go or even if she had entered through the right door.
“It seems like it’s abandoned, or like it’s inside a shopping mall,” Woodard said. “I kept looking over my shoulder to see if somebody was coming. It’s bad if you don’t feel safe coming into the sheriff’s office.”
That accessibility also raises security concerns for the sheriff and prosecutors; part of the $38.5 million voters will be asked to spend on the Moss Center will go toward new security features. Foot traffic will be directed through one secured entrance to the building, while other doors will become inaccessible from the outside and will be monitored by security cameras. Deputies would be better able to keep track of who comes in and out.
Elsewhere, the money would be spent on adding space for storage of vital records and pieces of police evidence. Lt. Pete Mitchum is the supervisor of the sheriff’s evidence department, where he must keep track of everything from seized drugs and weapons to DNA evidence that has to be kept in a testable condition throughout an inmate’s term in prison, just in case it’s ever needed in court for an appeal.
“Every year, we get more and more evidence,” Mitchum said, “and because of the legal process, it’s becoming more popular for us to hold on to evidence for a longer period of time.”
In other parts of Moss, visitors were surprised to see what close quarters both attorneys and investigators have to keep as staffing outgrows the nearly 30-year-old building. Some areas have multiple people sharing what should be a single office space.
“In those cubicles, you have no privacy to tell your story,” said Lori Ray, another citizen who toured officials’ office space. “I’m upset they have them so squeezed in.”
When the tour reached the sheriff’s personal office, Ray noted it was the only one-person office she had seen in the building.
The Family Court building on Heckle Boulevard in York is undergoing similar growing pains. Clerk of Court David Hamilton is running out of space to hold civil court filings, including active child support claims stretching back 40 years. The front lobby is so small it’s not unusual for lines to form that snake out the door.
Space needs are also affecting the courtrooms themselves, including one attached to the main building in a mobile housing unit, a “temporary” addition after the last facilities bond was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin in 2006. If this bond fails, Hamilton said he would need to find space to add on another mobile courtroom.
Like Moss, the Family Court building also has multiple entry points that raise security concerns, including an insecure holding space. Prisoners are often led down the same hallways and doors as the judges, and when the need arises, a defendant in a holding cell will be taken to use the staff restrooms.
“When they see the guard standing out here, they know they have to wait,” Hamilton said.
An expanded, renovated court building will be added to the Heckle complex at a cost of $26 million if the bond is approved. Another $22 million will be spent on public works needs, and $2 million will be spent on improvements to the Clover and Fort Mill magistrate’s offices.
Even if the bond is approved, the result would be a relatively small tax increase on county residents – equivalent to an additional $2.30 per month on a $100,000 home.
Pam Morrell toured the Family Court, but not as a neutral observer. She’s a member of the citizens’ advocacy group formed to promote a “yes” vote in the referendum, called Citizens and Business for York County.
“I wanted to get involved because (as a realtor) I sell Rock Hill and York County every day,” Morrell said. “It’s only a $25 a year increase to do everything that needs to be done.”
At the end of her tour, Woodard had decided she would vote yes on the bond issue.
“If it was just the solicitor’s office (space), that’s one thing, but when it comes down to the police, there are certain things you have to do,” she said. “Unless I get additional information where someone can say there’s some other way to pay for it, I’d say ‘yes.’ ”