Albany court system can’t reopen until certain guidelines are met

Dougherty county courts closed during pandemic

ALBANY, Ga. (WALB) - Dougherty County courts have been closed since March and they may not reopen again until July.

There’s a whole process the court system has to go through before it can reopen. And when it finally does reopen, don’t expect court proceedings to go back to the way they were before the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Willie Lockette said that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s executive order prohibits them from summoning jurors and conducting trials. They’re encouraged to use remote video technology to resume hearings. Which he said is new and has come with its own challenges for all involved.

Each court must also submit their own set of guidelines to the state and have them approved before they can reopen.

“The order authorizes courts to resume certain in-person judicial proceedings, except of course, jury and grand jury proceedings. But before doing so, each court has to develop a set of written guidelines on how to protect the health of all persons concerned,” explained Lockette.

Judge Lockette said they’ll have to limit the number of people in a courtroom and make sure the six feet social distancing rule is followed.

They’ll also have to clean and sanitize the building each day and some rooms after each use.

Judge Lockette said the courts may not reopen until late June or early July.

Other items discussed at Monday’s county commission meeting:

DA's wants security equipment in less affluent neighborhoods.

Greg Edwards, the district attorney for the Dougherty Judicial Circuit, is working towards installing surveillance equipment in what he calls less affluent neighborhoods.

Edwards said this is in response to violent crime in Albany and Dougherty County. He said many homeowners in more affluent neighborhoods have security cameras that have helped them solve crimes and locate people responsible.

The D.A. said if he can get federal money through a new grant, he proposed his office use it for equipment in areas he said a lot of people are afraid to talk after a crime is committed.

“One of the things about violent crime, especially gang crime, is that people are afraid to talk. It would help us if we have surveillance equipment in communities where violent crime is going on and using that information," said Edwards.

Edwards said the grant would give them $340,000. He said they would also be able to buy new equipment his team could use when prosecuting cases in court.

County commissioners also discussed parts of the FY21 budget:

County Officials see lack of funds due to Covid-19

Dougherty County leaders are facing a budget shortfall after weeks of COVID-19 closures.

Weeks of closures have caused a budget shortfall in Dougherty County. But thanks to a large rainy day fund, county leaders said they shouldn’t need to make any drastic decisions like furloughing employees right now.

County commissioners approved a property tax increase two years ago. The county’s financial advisor, Edmund Wall, said because of this, the county was able to establish what he calls a rainy day fund.

Wall said that while other counties in the state are now looking at having to cut employee pay or even furlough some, Dougherty County has money in the reserve funds that could be used if worst came to worst and it was needed.

County Administrator Michael McCoy said they actually were able to balance the budget despite the closures due to COVID-19.

“We have the financial wherewithal to weather this storm. And I would say weather it better than a lot of communities in this state. And that’s a good thing because we’d be having a different conversation if we didn’t have any cash on hand,” said McCoy.

The proposed plan on Monday is to potentially reallocate $5.8 million from the reserve funds to the general fund balance. McCoy said they won’t actually know how big of a hit the county’s revenue fund took until more data can be collected.

For example, McCoy said the county lost out on a lot of revenue from sales tax with businesses closed and revenue from fines and collections since the courts have been closed, as well.

More from County Commission:

County leaders pass rule to require face coverings in county owned buildings

You may be required to wear a face-covering when going inside any Albany or Dougherty County-owned building.

These buildings are still closed right now, as Kemp’s declared Public Health State of Emergency is still in effect until June 12.

Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said Kemp’s executive order highlights the need to take care of the most at-risk population for COVID-19.

Cohilas proposed a joint resolution between the county and the city to require visitors to city and county-owned buildings to wear face masks.

The resolution said this will help prevent the spread of the coronavirus once these buildings reopen.

“And this is consistent with best practices also given the large number of medical professionals, EMTs, public health officials, law enforcement and people that have high volume contact with the public," said Cohilas.

County commissioners passed the resolution unanimously. City Commissioners will have to pass it on their end, as well.

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