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Blair weighs purchase of risers for courtroom

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County leaders may buy a set of wooden risers to be installed in the courthouse’s newly renovated courtroom, an option that would be cheaper than continuing to rent.

Before voting on the proposed purchase at $4,640, Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb told fellow commissioners Tuesday that he would like to see other options explored, to limit the potential for damage involved with moving risers in and out of the courtroom.

“I’d like to protect the investment the county and the county taxpayers have made,” Erb said.

Erb was on the commissioners board during the restoration work on the oldest courtroom, located on the Allegheny Street side of the courthouse. The project, which took several years, was initiated to address water leaks and expanded to replace an aged heating, ventilating and air conditioning system.

As part of the effort, plans were approved for rebuilding a jury box with 16 seats and the refinishing of public seating benches behind the jury boxes. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted social distancing directives.

Jury trials, suspended in light of COVID-19 restrictions, resumed in August when restrictions were eased. In line with recommendations, public seating benches behind the jury box were removed and replaced by rented wooden risers, creating a third row of juror seating. By adding the third row, jurors in the first two rows could be seated at least 6 feet from each other.

So far, those arrangements have allowed criminal and civil court trials to move forward, with more criminal trials scheduled later this month.

“It has been working for us,” Court Administrator Janice Meadows told Erb and fellow commissioners Laura Burke and Amy Webster.

Instead of continuing to rent the wooden risers, Meadows said McCartney’s of Altoona provided a quote of $4,640 for the purchase and installation of metal risers. Meadows said that she believes the metal risers can be moved and used in other areas, if needed.

Meadows’ recommendation also indicated that the $4,640 cost could be covered with funding available from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. That source is also covering the cost of the rented risers.

Erb acknowledged that it would be more economical to purchase risers than to keep renting them. He asked if jurors could be seated in front of the jury box to eliminate the need for risers.

Meadows said putting chairs in front of the jury box was considered before the risers were tried.

Burke and Webster showed interest in looking at other options. But both voiced concerns about putting jurors in front of the jury box. That might allow them to overhear sidebar conversations during a trial, Burke said.

“You don’t want jurors to overhear anything,” Webster added.

Meadows also mentioned that the renovated courtroom has sub-floor electrical connections that could be restrictive when considering options. At Erb’s request, Meadows agreed to check into those restrictions.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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