Burlington County officials back $4.8 million courthouse renovation

Among other proposed changes, the plan would reduce multiple entrances at the Burlington County Courthouse to one.
Among other proposed changes, the plan would reduce multiple entrances at the Burlington County Courthouse to one. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 26, 2013

Burlington County officials who frequently say they don't want to spend taxpayers' money are now justifying a proposed $4.8 million renovation by saying it is needed for courthouse security.

The project calls for eliminating multiple entrances at the seven-story courthouse and adjacent county administration building in Mount Holly. A single entrance for both buildings would make them safer, officials say.

But the architectural plans and exhibits The Inquirer obtained through an open public records request show an array of unrelated extras that rarely have been mentioned publicly.

Among them is a 30-foot-long escalator that would replace or supplement four steps that lead from the county building to the multilevel, open-air courtyard between the buildings. It was added to the project in late December, according to Ralph Shrom, county spokesman at the time.

The escalator would "facilitate circulation" from the county building to the courtyard, the plans say. "Our proposal assumes that it would be housed within an addition that projects into the courtyard." No other details were available.

Sheriff Jean E. Stanfield, who is in charge of security for the courthouse, said she did not know how the escalator would fit in with the redesign of the courtyard and referred questions to the county engineer. "There's always a balance between security and convenience," she said, adding that it could improve traffic flow.

The engineer's office referred calls to the Board of Freeholders. Freeholder Director Joseph Donnelly did not return calls seeking comment.

County spokeswoman Charlene Webster said the plans were "the concept provided by the architect." She said they were approved by freeholders and would be "developed into a final design."

She said the project was expected to go out to bid as early as summer.

Listed on the contract as "Security Enhancements at the Mount Holly Complex," are new bathrooms; electrical, heating, and air-conditioning upgrades; and the gutting and renovation of the courtyard. The lower part of the marble walls of the county building also would be spruced up, and the freeholders' meeting room would get a raised platform and new lighting.

The typically frugal board approved the multimillion-dollar renovation despite recent belt tightening.

Last year, the all-Republican board closed a 100-year-old county nursing home for the indigent, saying it was costing taxpayers too much money. The freeholders also have deflected calls to increase assistant prosecutors' salaries, although - starting at $48,400 - they are among the lowest in the state.

Shrom, who retired this year, said in an earlier interview the renovations were long overdue. The county building dates to the 1950s and the courthouse was built in the 1980s, he said, "when building design didn't account for the level of high security needed today."

The need in general for courthouse security was tragically underscored last month, when a 68-year-old man opened fire in the lobby of a Wilmington courthouse, killing two women and wounding two police officers before taking his own life.

"Creating a single point of entry [in Mount Holly] will result in a safer, more secure county complex," Shrom said. Cameras would also be installed throughout the complex.

The new entrance and lobby would be housed in a 35-by-40-foot addition at the front of the county building on Rancocas Road. All visitors would have to use that entrance, walk through a metal detector, and take an elevator or stairs to the open-air courtyard behind the building.

From there, an escalator, ramp, and walkway would funnel people to either of two courthouse doors. The courtyard would be walled off, except for emergency exits. Overall, the project "is very clever," Shrom said, and would "eliminate the long lines . . . particularly on days when jury panels are called in."

On Dec. 27, a few days before two Democrats were sworn in to the five-member freeholder board, the board voted unanimously to award a $740,000 design contract to Lammey & Giorgio, a Haddon Township architectural firm.

Instead of putting the work out for competitive bid, the county used a process that allows a firm to be selected after it has been prequalified based on its work history.

In this case, the county chose Lammey & Giorgio from a pool of 22 companies that were prequalified a year ago to do architectural work for the county, Shrom said. He said no other firms were invited to submit proposals because Lammey & Giorgio was considered the most qualified.

The firm had designed "security system upgrades" at the Camden County Hall of Justice in 2008 and at several prisons in the state, according to its qualification packet.

Calls to Lammey & Giorgio were not returned.

The contract says the firm will design the project, obtain permits, assist with the bidding process for construction, and oversee progress.

The project was not a court initiative, but Assignment Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder said the court was "working closely with the freeholders to ensure that public concerns are met." He said he was "constantly in communication with the freeholders about improving the facilities."

Stanfield said there had never been a serious security breach or incident in the buildings. "But there is always a security threat," she said. "This whole complex was designed before security was looked at the way it's looked at now."

Sheriff's officers confiscate about 100 knives a year as visitors go through the metal detectors, she said.

Stanfield also said there were "a lot of bottlenecks," especially at peak times, when 400 to 450 people come into the buildings.

John Zell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 166, which represents many of the county's 65 sheriff's officers, said they were never asked to provide input on the project.

At the same time, their ranks are diminished because officers who left were not replaced.

"Getting the staffing up to appropriate levels," he said, "would probably be much better than building a $5 million door."

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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