By JESSICA ROBINSON
The first of three phases in the updating of the security of the Big Horn County courthouse in Basin was completed in November.
The courthouse underwent several renovations this year to improve the security for staff, visitors, law enforcement, jurors, victims and defendants.
This project included changing the circuit court room over to the east side of the courthouse and moving the county attorney’s office to where the circuit court was. There were walls and corridors placed within the courthouse to minimize contact between defendants, victims, courthouse staff and judges as well. They were also able to add ADA compliant restrooms on all floors.
The project also helped them in regards to the care and storage of the voting machines.
Sheriff Ken Blackburn said it was one of the most judicious expenditures of the Supreme Court’s money of any other projects that have been done so far.
Blackburn said they couldn’t afford to do a new building. With a 100-year-old building, they found there were problems; however Blackburn said they took ownership of the problems and fixed them.
Blackburn gave praise for County Clerk Lori Smallwood, the county commissioners, and the courthouse security committee that worked on the project.
“We were able to have a definite improvement on the safety of our citizens and those in the courtroom as well as the entire courthouse,” said Blackburn.
From here, there will be two more phases to the courthouse security project. Blackburn is starting on the second phase which is installing surveillance cameras throughout the courthouse and the county properties. He said they have received a grant for the project.
During the first phase of the project, they installed cables and infrastructure so the second phase would not be as invasive and disruptive.
“Anytime you do a remodel this large, there is a lot of disruption,” said Blackburn about the initial remodel. “The county employees deserve a lot of credit because they did so well putting up with the disruption and moving around and having to deal with things.”
Blackburn also gave credit to the courthouse staff that handled the maintenance. “They went over and above the call of duty to make sure that the construction crew were accommodated.”
During the construction, many of the staff worked out of different offices. Blackburn said they were largely able, with the exception of the shutdown, to keep things running fairly well.
This shutdown occurred in August, when a routine meeting on the project presented some concerns which led the courthouse to being closed. Many of the departments within the courthouse were closed. The only exception was the circuit court, district court, county attorney, CARES and the sheriff’s office. The courts and the county attorney were able to make deadlines during that time.
After testing was completed, the concern ended up being a minute amount of asbestos.
Blackburn said they inherited a problem with a 100-year-old building. “You’re going to find things that people might have thought were abated and so on and so forth,” he said. “But when you got there, they weren’t, so there’s no blame to be placed here.”
Blackburn continued, saying they accepted the responsibility and once they had knowledge, they knew they had to fix that. “At the time, we didn’t know the extent of the situation. In order to react appropriately for the safety of our employees and our citizens, we went ahead and made sure that we went with the appropriate agencies.”
That required them to get other contractors. Blackburn said it was a long process that they got through. He added that Smallwood, the county commissioners, and Big Horn County Attorney Marcia Bean were fantastic working through that situation.
Since the shutdown, a committee was formed that meets and plans for emergency situations in the future so they don’t have any more closures and disruption of services.
Blackburn said they are the only county in the state that has developed an emergency shutdown procedure and is continuing to evolve that process. He added that other counties have reached out to them and are trying to figure out what to do in similar situations.
“We’ve learned a lot from that experience,” he said. He added that it was a hard learning experience.
“I think we are better for it and I think we all evolved from that,” he said.
The final phase of the project is an addition to the east side of the courthouse so defendants will not be exposed and out in the open. Blackburn said it was one of his original goals. They are working on getting grant money for the project.
“We’re far from done,” he said.
There is no final total on the cost of the project at this time.
Blackburn said Smallwood was one of the heroes of this project. “She probably worked the hardest to keep this as close to budget as possible,” he added.
The project was funded by grants through the Wyoming Supreme Court and was administered by the State Lands and Investment Board. “We used as few of county dollars as we could,” said Sheriff Ken Blackburn.