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Grip on county building security

While post-9/11 security concerns have centered on terrorism from overseas, it's the domestic threat that has Hernando County prepared to spend $275,000 to $300,000 to secure its administration building and courthouse.

Security measures include gating the underground parking garage at the county government center in downtown Brooksville, installing alarms at emergency exits, restricting certain doors to key card holders and limiting the 30-plus entrances open to the public, said Pat Fagan, the county's director of parks and recreation, who is responsible for overseeing county-owned buildings.

Fagan estimated that the bid process, which he expected to begin within the next two weeks, will take two to three months.

The heightened security includes video cameras at each entrance, panic hardware at exits that sounds an alarm when the door opens and key card locks at certain entrances, including the underground garage, Fagan said. Restricted and exit-only doors will force the public to funnel through the remaining entrances, he said.

"The public doesn't want to be locked out, but in time, they will understand and get used to being able to get into the building through certain entrances," Fagan said.

More than 500 employees work inside the complex each day, Fagan said. Added to that is the daily parade of jurors, court petitioners, lawyers and spectators to County Commission meetings, Fagan said. The building houses social services, voter registration, board and committee meetings, and the county's administrative staff.

"We have a lot of activity here," Fagan said, guessing that the daily flow of visitors numbers in the thousands.

It's largely the concerns of court staffers that are driving a plan to lock down many of the entrances and exits to the county's headquarters on N Main Street, Fagan said.

Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., who is spearheading the court's efforts to heighten security, said, "The building was not really designed initially with security in mind."

Restricting access throughout the building will help deter some problems and allow bailiffs to focus on certain checkpoints, Merritt said. Security at the garage is also an important first step, he said.

But the security measures fall far short of Merritt's standards, he said. He preferred metal detectors at all entrances, not only at the first-, third- and fourth-floor court entrances. He also liked a secured elevator for court staff.

As it is, Merritt can decide a contentious custody case or divorce and find himself sharing an elevator with the disgruntled disputant moments later.

"The family law and the domestic docket statistically is one of the biggest areas of concern. That's where the most threats comes from, even more so than in criminal cases," Merritt said.

In domestic violence cases, tempers run high, Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai said. More than once, she has seen a petition for a restraining order devolve into verbal, and sometimes physical, fights.

It's not uncommon for Nicolai and her staff to call in bailiffs to remove unruly spouses and significant others. And Nicolai's staff does not work in offices guarded by metal detectors.

"It can get very scary," Nicolai said.

It's at the point where the staff locks the door after 5 p.m., when the bailiffs go home, leaving those waiting for restraining orders outside the office, she said.

Securing the garage and limiting entrances are not enough, she said.

"That's not going to help us. We really need protection, for somebody to secure the building," she said.

She wanted metal detectors at all public entrances and bailiffs on duty nearby for as long as her office is open for business, she said. If the county decides to build a new courthouse or administration wing, Nicolai said, she hopes security measures will be a priority.

Fagan said security measures that include metal detectors and officers at all public entrances are ideal but expensive.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (352) 754-6127.