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Legislation would give one-time funding for Riverton justice center

Oct 30, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Counties would have to put up matching funds to cover 50 percent of the project from their own coffers or other non-state sources under the bill to be considered this winter.

Security issues at the Riverton courthouse and Fremont County's troubles resolving the situation inspired a draft bill at the statehouse. Approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee on Oct. 28, the legislation would provide $10 million for courthouse security fixes.

"We're trying to deal with the courthouse situation over there in Riverton and similar situations that might exist in Wyoming," state Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton said.

Bebout is the chairman of Joint Appropriations Committee.

According to the draft, state loan and investment board would administer grants to help pay for security at state court facilities. Counties would have to put up matching funds to cover 50 percent of the project from their own coffers or other non-state sources.

Fremont County Commissioners began looking at building a new justice center in Riverton in 2008 because of security concerns with the current courthouse. They engaged Reilly Johnson Architects in April to design a facility.

Designers expect the price tag to be about $5 million. If the draft bill passed and Fremont County received a grant, the county would still be responsible for about $2.5 million, Bebout said.

Grants also would require counties to establish a local security team to develop a court security plan and oversee use of the grant.

The draft bill lays out criteria the Wyoming Court Security Commission would use to evaluate applications.

Preference would also be given to "counties in which there have occurred recent and serious security breaches or issues which cannot be adequately addressed by available county funds or resources."

Imposing all available property tax mills, creating a local security team that has finished a court security plan and those that demonstrating "a previous financial commitment to court security initiatives" are other priority criteria.

The draft also gives preference to poorer and less populated counties. Ultimately, though, SLIB would decide which grants to approve.

Bills cannot only apply to certain counties, and the criteria give communities statewide the chance to apply for funding, Bebout said. He thinks Fremont County has a strong chance to obtain funding.

"From everything I've seen, we're probably the number-one priority in the state," Bebout said referring to the Riverton courthouse. "That's what the (Wyoming Court) Security Commission's told me that's what the chief justice has told me too."

The $10 million would be a one-time appropriation for the next two-year budget cycle. Funding beyond then would require further action.

Bebout hoped an appropriation for the court security fund would be included in future budgets.

A bullet found in July 2012 to have penetrated the current courthouse's exterior was not the only problem with the facility, Bebout said. The building was inadequate and originally built to store hay, he said.

"It just needs to be fixed, no question about it, and we have an obligation as a state to have a secure place for courts to conduct their hearings," Bebout said.

The Riverton senator believes the bill has the support of Gov. Matt Mead, the Speaker of the state House of Representatives and the President of the Wyoming Senate.

Sponsorship by a committee also lends it some credence, Bebout said. Other legislators trust it has been debated and vetted more than bills individual legislators introduce.

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