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SUNDAY, JULY 29, 2007
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When it rains, this basement storage room, under the steps leading up to the Lawrence County Courthouse, has water on the floor. Circuit Clerk Harce Hill, left, says he elevates as much paperwork as he can. State Fire Marshal Edward Paulk said the decades-old records cluttering the hallways and storage rooms at the courthouse were creating a fire hazard and needed to be removed immediately.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
When it rains, this basement storage room, under the steps leading up to the Lawrence County Courthouse, has water on the floor. Circuit Clerk Harce Hill, left, says he elevates as much paperwork as he can. State Fire Marshal Edward Paulk said the decades-old records cluttering the hallways and storage rooms at the courthouse were creating a fire hazard and needed to be removed immediately.

Aging Lawrence County
Courthouse coping with fire hazards

Electronics mixed blessing for court

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

MOULTON — Modern technology is both a blessing and a burden at the Lawrence County Courthouse.

The state fire marshal declared the 71-year-old courthouse unsafe earlier this month after finding the building’s electrical system was overloaded, a problem in many older buildings constructed before the computer age.

These days, most courthouse employees work on a computer, and the increased need for electrical outlets combined with too few outlets has led to a messy, complicated system of extension cords.

“I’ve got seven girls in my office, and each has a computer at her desk. This building wasn’t designed to power computers,” said Circuit Clerk Harce Hill.

“Plus, we have these window units instead of central air, and those all have to be plugged in.”

The new technology may have been the cause of one of the fire marshal’s complaints, but it may be the solution to another.

Fire hazard order

In his order filed July 5, state Fire Marshal Edward Paulk said the decades-old records cluttering the hallways and storage rooms at the
courthouse were creating a fire hazard and needed to be removed immediately.

The problem can’t be fixed that quickly, said Hill, but over time, the courthouse plans to scan every document, send the digital format to the state and move the offending records to the old county jail.

The state requires all court records to remain at the court until they are scanned and sent to the Administrative Office of Courts in Montgomery. At that time, the paper records can either be thrown away or stored at another facility.

Hill said he won’t throw any of them away because the courts may need to retrieve them one day and many of them are historical documents.

While touring the storage rooms in the basement, he pointed out court notes from a trial in 1904, 32 years before the current courthouse even existed.

Slow process

The circuit clerk’s office began scanning new documents in April and hired a part-time employee to scan the old records. Unfortunately, said Hill, it’s a slow process that won’t be finished soon.

Circuit Judge Philip Reich has asked the clerk’s office to keep the physical records until the case is settled and all fines are paid.

The part-time employee spends so much time scanning those files that she hasn’t been able to scan as many of the older files as Hill would like, he said.

“Our scanner can’t even keep up with what’s coming in,” he said. “One file might have 20 to 30 pages, and you have to prep them. It’s an ongoing thing.”

The state pays the scanner for 20 hours a week, and the clerk’s office uses restitutional funds to pay for an additional 16.

Hill said another scanner would help him get the courthouse into compliance with state fire codes much faster.

“We’re trying to get it done as quickly as possible, but we ran out of money,” he said. “If the commission would give me the money to hire a full-time scanner, we’d get those files out of the way.”

The fire marshal’s order, which has not been enforced pending an appeal hearing, threatened to shut down the courthouse if the County
Commission did not immediately remove the records from hallways and fire escapes and discontinue the use of extension cords.

He also set a limit of 49 visitors and employees per floor and ordered the commission to hire an architect and engineer to bring the building into compliance with state codes.

The appeal hearing is scheduled for Aug. 7 at 9 a.m.

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