By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Local sheriffs know best how to protect their county courthouses, so they should be in charge of developing security plans for them.
That's the concept behind legislation unveiled Friday by two state senators who headed separate study committees that examined courthouse security last year following a fatal shooting spree at the Fulton County Courthouse.
"If these buildings aren't safe, the very foundation of our government is at risk,'' said Sen. Joseph Carter, R-Tifton. "Senate Bill 462 is a significant step in ensuring that these buildings are safe.''
Carter and Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, were tabbed by Senate leaders to lead the two study committees formed after rape defendant Brian Nichols allegedly gunned down a judge, court employee and a deputy in a rampage in downtown Atlanta last March that spread to Gwinnett County before he surrendered to police.
The senators traveled around the state to hear suggestions from local sheriffs, judges and county commissioners.
One point that quickly became clear during those discussions was that sparsely populated rural counties wouldn't be able to afford to meet tough security standards that lawmakers might wish to set for busy urban and suburban courthouses in metro Atlanta.
"Every situation is different, every building is different and budgets are different,'' Carter said. "We're going to leave these calls up to people at the local level.''
As a result, the bill requires county sheriffs to develop and implement comprehensive security plans for their courthouses but doesn't dictate what should be in those plans.
"It will allow these local sheriffs to get with their parties and fashion something they can live with based on what their resources are,'' said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs Association.
Kemp said the Senate plans to add $500,000 to Gov. Sonny Perdue's midyear budget request to help the sheriffs write their plans and begin to put them in place. But there is no funding for the major building improvements some counties will want to make to enhance security.
"I'm not saying we can afford to do everything every county wants to do,'' Kemp said. "This is a small step in the right direction.''
During one of the study committee's hearings in December, Judge Sammy Ozburn of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit proposed that the state finance security improvements by adding a $5 fee to every civil and criminal court filing in Georgia.
But Kemp noted Friday that Perdue has expressed concern that the courts already are levying too many fees.
"That may be something we could study,'' Kemp said. "But that's not something we need to rush into.''
Both senators promised quick action on the bill.
Kemp said the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, which he chairs, will hold a hearing on the legislation on Tuesday.