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Commissioners Approve Security Improvements, Hear Long-Term Plan for County Facilities

The lower level of the East Annex building houses the probation/parole and magistrate’s facilities. The upper level consists of the planning and inspections, tag office and more. Photo by Jesse Wood

By Jesse Wood

The security systems bid that the Watauga County Board of Commissioners approved on Tuesday is “one step in the overall plan” of judicial and law enforcement services taking over the entire East Annex building, according to Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque.

Geouque’s comments came prior to the commissioners approving a $47,908 bid (with a $4,800 contingency) from Boone-based Creekside Electronics for security systems for the East Annex (old library area), Anderson Building (old AppalCART facility) and the Human Services Center building at 132 Poplar Grove Connector.

County Maintenance Director Robert Marsh said the bids ranged from the low that Creekside Electronics submitted all the way to $115,553. Marsh said county staff met with representatives from each of buildings as early as last fall and learned of the “huge need for increased security.”

Randy Townsend, chief probation officer for Watauga County, spoke before the commissioners regarding the “desperate need for security” in the annex building.

“The magistrate’s office is there. Everybody that gets arrested in Watauga County comes through that building. We deal with felons, misdemeanors that come in and out. Right now, it’s wide open. People can walk around and come and go. We can be working in our office and not even know anybody is in our building. They can be standing right behind us. We don’t even know they are there.”

Townsend added that no cameras exist to see who is going into the magistrate’s office nor are any capturing what’s happening in the parking lot of the building and nearby sidewalks.

“We just really need to secure the access, have one way into that building,” Townsend concluded to the commissioners. “If we get this, we’ll have one access into our building. We are going to wand people as they come in. My officers will escort them in and back out, so we don’t have people wandering around, and the magistrate will be able to see who is in their lobby and who pulls up outside.”

Marsh said that the top floor of the East Annex building, where the Watauga County Planning and Inspections and the tag office is located, basically won’t receive any changes. Marsh added that exterior and interior cameras will be installed for the lower level.

“We will also install one door with access control to funnel traffic through the lower entrance on the left hand side of the building. Everyone will have to go through there. At that point, they will be seen by a camera and a full-time receptionist. Then they will have to be buzzed in or go to a selection board and press a button to talk to the officer they need to speak with.”

Geouque said the setup is similar to the District Attorney’s office in the upper level of the Watauga County Courthouse.

As for the Human Services Center, Geouque said that Department of Social Services staff currently access the building through three different areas. Once these security changes are implemented, everyone must enter through the lobby in the front. However, DSS staff will still be able to exit from those other doors.

“For us to secure the building and spend the money we’ll have to spend, there are going to need to be some changes in how they operate in the facility. Like I said, I think the improvements will be welcomed and actually have been received very positively,” Geouque said.

Geouque said the improvements will also include a panic button with the ability to lock down the building in case of an incident.

“Whereas before it was kind of hodgepodge. We had an incident and nobody kind of knew, trying to communicate through three different departments, trying to lock it down and when law enforcement came, they weren’t sure if the building was locked down,”Geouque said. “Again with this, we’ll probably implement some procedures to clear the situation, who gets notified, and law enforcement will have access to the facility.”

Geouque told the board that this is “one step in the overall plan” to eventually clear out the upper floor of the Annex building of the planning and inspections department, veterans’ services and local Red Cross chapter and move those organizations to the health department building.

“This will give us the ability for a one-stop shop up there and clear that floor out and then the plan there will be to work with the court system and magistrates office, DA’s office and clerk of court and find out what exactly would you like to utilize that space for because as you know they’ll tell you they need additional space, and this is kind of one opportunity for them to get some of this space until we meet that long term need of building that third building up there at Human Services,” Geouque said.

“Eventually, the plan will probably be for the upper floor to also be probably lockdown once we move county services out of there and it becomes more of a judicial/law enforcement type of building.”

Geouque noted that these long-term plans would continue to be hashed out during the annual budget retreats. Both Commissioners Billy Kennedy and Jimmy Hodges had similar responses before the unanimous vote approving the security services bid.

“It’s shame we have to deal with situations like this but that’s the time we’re living in,” Hodges said.