By MICHELLE REITER
Changes at the Findlay Municipal Building may seem subtle to those who spend little time there.
But the differences are substantial for the Police Department and Findlay Municipal Court.
The police records department is now on the third floor. The police chief and detectives have been moved to the ground floor.
Findlay Municipal Court and most of its reconfigured office space take up most of the building’s second floor.
Among other changes, the probation department is less accessible to the public.
More doors are locked, and more offices are private.
And those undergoing drug testing now have private bathrooms in which to do it, a detail that a person who has not undergone or administered such a test may not appreciate.
“Before, we just used the public restrooms,” said Dave Beach, the city’s director of court services, adding that it was neither private nor as secure.
These changes, and others, are the result of a four-year, $550,000 project to make the municipal building more efficient and meet the city’s needs more appropriately, Beach said.
Just $50,000 of that total came from the city’s capital improvement fund. The rest was paid with municipal court fees earmarked for improvement projects like this one.
Before the remodeling project began, the probation department was accessible to the public, and rooms for municipal court client-attorney meetings were less private.
“There was tremendous commotion here,” Beach said of the municipal court pretrial area. “On trial days traffic was heavy.”
Now, visitors must be buzzed in to see probation officers, as they and other areas are key-card protected.
The attorney-client meeting rooms are in separate, private compartments behind locked doors, often away from windows.
“People used to try to jump out of the windows when they found out they were going to jail,” Beach said.
The court’s civil and traffic departments used to be crammed closer together, making it more difficult to organize and keep them separate.
Now those departments are more clearly differentiated and organized separately.
Paper records used to take up a significant amount of space on the building’s first floor.
Those have now been digitized, the result of a several-year project done with assistance from workers at Blanchard Valley Center.
It was the digitization of the records that kicked off the four-year project. The records department is on the third floor now.
Managers of the municipal building project sought to revamp space so it was more compartmentalized and efficient, which ended up creating more offices and much-needed space, including a new judge’s chambers for Municipal Judge Mark Miller.
The judge’s chambers is located behind a space that may become a new courtroom. It is the last part of this phase of the building’s remodeling, and it is not yet complete.
Miller is stationed temporarily in one of the court’s two jury rooms, which overlooks part of Dorney Plaza and faces West Main Cross.
He said he is enthusiastic about the changes, which were made possible because of Mayor Lydia Mihalik and with the cooperation and patience of the Police Department.
“I’m just the beneficiary of what began before I came,” Miller said. He was appointed municipal judge in September by Gov. John Kasich.
He is now the only permanent municipal judge, as Judge Jonathan Starn recently moved to Hancock County Common Pleas Court. A retired judge, Kevin Smith, has been helping out until the state appoints a new municipal court judge.
The next phase of the remodeling project will include the new courtroom — now an empty room — making it the third and smallest courtroom in the municipal building.
The city hopes to hire a magistrate to work in that courtroom, someone who will handle arraignments, fines and costs, lightening the judges’ workloads.
“The caseload is rising to the point where we need a third judge,” Beach said.
But that is a plan Beach is calling “tentative,” as the time frame is uncertain.
Finishing the courtroom and hiring a magistrate will come “after we settle down and get all the bills in, and finances are such that we can proceed,” Beach said.
The magistrate is part of this year’s budget, and the court hopes to be able to hire soon. But how they will pay for the third courtroom is undetermined.
Beach said optimizing and clearing more space in the municipal building was, in part, a way to cope with mounting court cases.
“The court has been outgrowing our facilities here for some time,” he said.
Though the police and the municipal court are headquartered at the municipal building, incarcerated prisoners are all held at the Hancock County jail around the corner, which is operating at 126 percent capacity. That means there are 121 prisoners for 96 beds.
Some prisoners are farmed out to Wood and Putnam County jails.
The problem of finding space for prisoners affects all levels of law enforcement, Beach said, because if police and the courts can’t use incarceration as a deterrent, it is hard to enforce the law.
The changes at the municipal building will at least help court employees better handle the growing caseload.
Most offenses in both municipal and county common pleas courts are drug-related, and law enforcement officials are trying to determine the most effective way to combat a problem that taxes courts and social service systems.
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