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Community service

Edwin Montee does some detail work last week on the stairway leading to the K Avenue entrance of the Union County-owned Joseph Building. Montee was part of a three-man crew who fulfilled court-ordered community service requirements by working on the remodel of the entryway. Working in the background is Union County maintenance employee Gary Stein. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Edwin Montee does some detail work last week on the stairway leading to the K Avenue entrance of the Union County-owned Joseph Building. Montee was part of a three-man crew who fulfilled court-ordered community service requirements by working on the remodel of the entryway. Working in the background is Union County maintenance employee Gary Stein. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Young men pay debt to society, dive in to renovate entrance to Joseph Building 

Good help isn’t always hard to find. You’ve just got to know where to look.

That’s what Dennis Ferguson, facilities maintenance supervisor for Union County, found out this spring when he was short of hands to finish the renovation of an entrance to the county-owned Joseph Building on K Avenue.

To the rescue came three young men assigned to community service by the circuit court. 

They did the job to pay their debts to society. And they did it more than well, according to their boss.

“They just started showing up, and the timing was perfect. We got these guys and they went knee-deep into it,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson works on a tight budget and, in many cases, taps into Union County work crews for labor on projects. Work crew members are criminal offenders who may or may not be serving time in jail. 

Last year, the county started work on a renovation of the K Avenue entryway that leads to various county and circuit court offices. The job started off with the rebuilding of a badly deteriorated sidewalk and steps by Summit Construction. 

When that was finished this spring, Ferguson and county maintenance employee Gary Stein found themselves in need of people to help with landscaping, painting, detail on the concrete work, restoration of the big brass doors leading in and myriad other chores. 

Unfortunately, the labor source Ferguson usually goes to for such projects had dried up.

“It turned out that all the work crews were busy with the Pierce Road construction project,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson started looking for an alternate source. He checked with the juvenile and parole and probation departments, and lined up three workers — Tom Flynn, Jolben Latak and Edwin Montee — who had been ordered by the court to perform community service. It turned out to be a blessing.

The three pitched in starting in mid-April, with Flynn taking charge of landscaping tasks, Latak working mainly on the brass doors, and Montee serving as an all-around helper. Chores overlapped and the three were a constant help to each other, especially on the doors.

Now that the age-battered portals are refurbished, they shine in the sunlight and are a particular source of pride for Ferguson and his assistants.

“They were really black. We had to scrape and scrape,” Latak said.

All three men said they have enjoyed working on the Joseph Building project, and especially appreciate the chance they had to learn new skills. Latak added that he liked the camaraderie he experienced at the work site.

“This is a good place to work, and the people are real nice,” he said.

Community service is different from work crew assignments in several important respects. For one thing, work crew members have to pay a fee for the privilege of working for the public good, while there’s no such charge for working on community service projects.

For another, work crews don’t get to pick and choose what they’ll do, while community service offenders often do. People on community service can line up their own projects, so long as they meet parameters set by the court. 

“Community service is geared more to individuals,” Union County Circuit Court Administrator Michelle Leonard said. “On work crew, the projects are more involved, more structured.”

Leonard said it isn’t unheard of for people sentenced to community service to be assigned to public projects, though it isn’t done on a regular basis. She added, though, that Presiding Judge Russell West approves of the idea and it could become a new model.

“As a court, we have to keep things moving forward. I see this as an option for folks who don’t have work crew funds. The judges will be satisfied they’re out there working,” Leonard said.

Flynn and Latak both put in 100 hours on the entryway project. Montee logged substantial time though his hours haven’t been tallied yet. Ferguson said he strived to keep the workers coming back by making the job a positive, hands-on experience.

“We try and make it so when they come to work, it’s pleasant and they want to finish it,” he said.

Leonard said the court is considering giving more people sentenced to community service a chance to work on public projects. In the future, it could develop into a full-fledged program.

“I see this as an option for folks who don’t have work crew funds. The judges will be satisfied they’re out there working,” Leonard said.

With the project nearing completion, Ferguson said he is impressed with the results and thankful for the work ethic displayed by Flynn, Montee and Latak.

“We’re so proud of the fact we had a crew that did such a beautiful job,” he said.

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