HAZARD — Funding losses and cutbacks have affected nearly every aspect of local government in Perry County this year, and have now reached the institution in which those in the county should feel most protected.
Perry County District Judge Leigh Anne Stephens said the courts have been experiencing issues with having a sufficient amount of court security. The sheriff's office is tasked with supplying security personnel, however, since the office laid off 15 of its 25 employees last month due to a severe decline in taxes collected in the last year, it has been difficult to supply the courthouse with the normal amount of security.
“I've cut road deputies, I've cut office personnel, and then we had to cut back (on court security),” Sheriff Les Burgett said.
Stephens said for her 9 a.m. docket on Monday, there were around 200 people appearing in court, but with the courthouse only being able to allot one bailiff instead of the usual two when court is in session, she said it would be nearly impossible to manage if an incident were to arise in court where security was needed.
“It's a serious situation,” Stephens said.
Stephens added that a deputy was sent from the sheriff's office on Monday to help with security, but this takes away from the already depleted deputy pool.
“The sheriff, really, his hands are tied,” Stephens said. “We have no tax money coming in, the coal companies are shutting down and that has really hurt our tax moneys. That's not the sheriff's fault.”
Burgett said he has been in contact with Kentucky's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the institution tasked with assuring all aspects of the judicial branch in Kentucky are carried out according to the state constitution, about how to remedy the situation in which the courts and sheriff's office have found themselves.
“I talked to one gentleman from the AOC about this, and I don't know what they plan on doing. He was wanting us to go to part time people, but we have to make it through October,” he said.
Burgett explained that the sheriff's office will not begin receiving commission until October when tax collection begins again. He added that overtime reimbursement played a large part in the office having to cut back, noting that the AOC reimburses the sheriff's office so much money per hour but the office would have to pay whatever was left over after the reimbursement.
Stephens also said she has let the AOC know about the issues the courts are having now.
“I rarely make phone calls from the courtroom, I mean and actually talk on the phone in front of everybody, but I wanted everybody backing me up,” Stephens said after making a call in court to the AOC on Monday.
Officials with the AOC were not available for comment before press time.
Stephens said that court sessions are not only affected due to lack of security during court, but visitors to the courthouse now have a longer wait to go through security in the lobby.
“If you have one or two people downstairs on court security, they can't do it all,” Stephens said on Monday. “Like today, I didn't realize there were so many people who were waiting in the hallway and at first I thought, well, they were just late, but then I thought, no, they probably couldn't get through court security.”
Instead of issuing bench warrants for those people who missed their court appearance on Monday due to long wait times to get through security, Stephens said she issued summons for them to appear again, but warned that this is something patrons of the court should be ready for in the future.
“Like I said, it's not the fault of the sheriff's department,” Stephens said. “It's an issue on the national level, and the state.”