County planning several office shifts

By Jeff Linville -

Two upcoming renovation projects for the county will have an impact on where county employees are stationed, creating a game of musical chairs.

With working starting next month on the historic courthouse and Dobson Plaza, folks have either already moved or will be moving out of the old courthouse, from the new courthouse and from the government center off Atkins Street.

The addition of the former Just Save/Lowes Food store will allow county government to spread out more, while changes at the judicial center are aimed at increasing security.

Right now, the county has a metal detector set up at the main door of the courthouse; however, anyone from the public could still get into the building through the lower side entrance into the tax office.

Don Mitchell, county facilities director, said the plan is to move the tax department out of the lower level and into Dobson Plaza alongside the Board of Elections, Cooperative Extension and some state and federal agencies based in town such as Natural Resources Conservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The district attorney’s office is on the main floor of the historic courthouse, but that space must be vacated to allow construction work. So, Mitchell said the DA and his team will move to the tax office in the judicial center.

The lower level door will be locked off to the general public, allowing only authorized personnel to access it. All visitors will be funneled through the front entrance where the metal detector is located. No weapons are allowed, and that does include pocket knives.

Once the old courthouse is renovated, much of county management will move there such as the county manager, clerk of the board, facilities manager, finance department and human resources. There will also be a large meeting room where the county Board of Commissioners can hold meetings for the public to attend.

That will free up space in the Surry County Government Center on Hamby Street, behind Dobson Plaza, which already houses agencies such as the Health and Nuitrition Center and Social Services.

One office that will be temporarily without a home is the magistrate, which has been in the basement of the old courthouse. That office will go to a leased office across the street on West Kapp Street, said Mitchell.

At one time long ago, the magistrate’s office was part of the same building as the sheriff’s office, Mitchell said. That makes sense as their jobs do frequently interact with one another.

Eventually, the long-range plan is to put those two back together again, he said.

The Cooperative Extension building next door to the sheriff’s office is several decades old and in need of extensive repairs. Rather than sink money into that building, Mitchell said the county has a plan to eventually tear down that building and use the space for an addition for law enforcement.

“The current sheriff’s office and detention center was completed in 1976 with a detention center addition in 2001/2002,” the sheriff’s department wrote in a statement.

“In 1976, the sheriff’s office had a total of 49 employees which included deputies, detention, office staff and communications. As of January 2018, the sheriff’s office has a total of 120 full-time employees with 111 of those working out of the current building. The original sally port was closed in to expand evidence storage which is reaching capacity due to the ever-increasing requirements to retain evidence.”

Rather than deputies having their own work space, the headquarters has common work stations that several deputies must share to fill out paperwork, take phone calls and log computer data.

“Since 2015, the Detention Center has been dealing with overcrowding issues,” said Sheriff Jimmy Combs. “In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the Sheriff’s Office spent $476,109.26 housing inmates in other facilities at the cost of $40 to $60 per inmate per day. There is $400,000 approved in the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget to cover the cost of housing inmates in other facilities.

“The detention center has a capacity of 125 inmates. We have a daily average of 32 inmates being housed out of the county. Housing inmates out of the county also requires transportation to and from other facilities, increasing the cost as well as depleting manpower. We are working on solutions for these issues with the board and county staff. For the detention center, we are looking at increasing the bed space for inmates and locating the magistrates’ office inside the facility.”

Regardless of the form of expansion county commissioners might eventually decide upon, Combs said, “I would like to see adequate housing for our current inmate population and additional space to give the sheriff’s office the ability to house inmates for other counties as well as adequate square footage for each division to operate at peak efficiency in their individual work space.”

Such long-range planning could come up at a planning retreat for the county board this year.

By Jeff Linville

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.