MANKATO — The next stage in Blue Earth County’s effort to install security cameras around all of its facilities is under way at the Historic Courthouse and the Blue Earth County Government Center.
The County Board approved a $94,000 contract for the installation of 26 cameras at the two buildings on Fifth Street, a price that includes five years of service and maintenance. Currently, only the Blue Earth County Justice Center has video surveillance.
Unlike the Justice Center — which has 115 cameras to cover the jail, courtroom, courtroom holding cells and public areas — the downtown buildings can get by with fewer cameras, said Tim Edwards, the county’s physical plant director. “The clientele” at the Justice Center, as Edwards puts it, is the primary difference.
The courthouse and government center are home to staff who handle licensing, land records, taxpayer services, human services programs and other administrative duties, so a dozen or so cameras at each was deemed sufficient. The cameras will be focused largely on the grounds and doorways to the buildings.
The purpose of the cameras is to discourage anyone who might be considering burglarizing the facilities or harming staff or the public as they come and go from the buildings, along with providing video images of any criminal activity that might occur.
“Really, it’s safety in general,” Edwards said.
When the cameras are initially installed in coming weeks, they will only provide digital recordings that won’t be viewed unless criminal activity occurs. But the system will be set up so that law enforcement could eventually monitor the images in real time.
“We’re seeing if we could have our dispatchers tap into it if an alarm went off or something,” Edwards said.
Charlie Berg, the county’s information technology director, said there are no immediate plans to have dispatchers monitor the cameras. But the system could be connected in the future to either the Mankato Department of Public Safety, which already monitors scores of cameras scattered around downtown, or the Sheriff’s Department at the Justice Center.
“It is technologically possible for Public Safety to monitor them,” Berg said. “More likely, they’d be monitored at the Justice Center.”
Eventually, the grounds of the Blue Earth County Library on Main Street, the county Highway Department on the southeast side of town and, possibly, the Household Hazardous Waste Facility on the north side off of Third Avenue could be added to the system.
“The question is when,” Edwards said.
County Commissioner Kip Bruender said he initially was uncertain about approving the cameras, saying they seemed a bit Orwellian.
“It just seems Big Brotherish,” Bruender said before ultimately voting to install them.
Board Chairman Drew Campbell voted against the contract but for the opposite reason.
Campbell said he thought cameras should be placed in and around the parking ramp behind the government center to provide safety for staff and citizens using the ramp and to deter vandalism of the dozen or so county vehicles parked there.
“If we’re going to do the building, I think the ramp needs to be done, too,” Campbell said.
To get good video coverage of the entire ramp would have required an additional 12 cameras and added cost of $36,000.
Other commissioners said they didn’t believe the ramp was particularly unsafe and thought the added cost couldn’t be justified, at least for now.
“It’s important, but at this point I don’t know if it rises to the occasion of being included,” said Commissioner Mark Piepho, noting that the library and highway department are without surveillance cameras, too.
Plans for adding cameras to the exterior of the courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, were reviewed and OK’d by an architect for the Minnesota Historical Society, Edwards said. Some tree trimming might be required around the building if limbs block camera angles, but the cameras themselves will be small and unobtrusive, he said.