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State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. File

COLUMBIA — Law enforcement officials and lawmakers agree that South Carolina needs a new crime lab to keep the wheels of justice moving, but how to fund it remains the $54 million question.

The State Law Enforcement Division's three-decade-old forensics lab — which pre-dates prosecutors' use of DNA evidence — has reached capacity, while its caseload continues to rise, said SLED Chief Mark Keel.

Last fiscal year, the agency processed more than 24,000 pieces of evidence for law enforcement agencies across the state — 22 percent more than in 2011-12. SLED already must bump cases to the backburner as other crimes take priority, creating backlogs in every division, Keel said.

"There's not a day that goes by I don't get a call from an agency or solicitor's office saying 'We need this done right away, ASAP.' We take people off the cases they're currently working and reassign," he told The Post and Courier.

Keel insists the quality of the lab work won't change regardless of funding, but "if we don't expand, the real impact is going to be a slower turnaround on cases. We'll have to prioritize cases more." 

The main problems are space and cooling. Even with 64,000 square feet, the existing lab has no room for new technology, and the building's air conditioning system couldn't handle more equipment anyway. Already some computers must be temporarily shut down during the summer to prevent overheating. When it was built in 1990, the lab contained no space for DNA testing. Now that occupies 2½ floors of the building, Keel said.    

"We've been through a number of renovations. We've taken every closest, every canteen, every spot we can use," Keel said. "We’ve remodeled and tried to reuse space, but we’re at our limits now. There’s nowhere to spread out."

SLED's $54 million request for a new crime lab, which would be built on existing state property near its headquarters in Columbia, represents the largest chunk of about $100 million collectively sought by state law enforcement agencies for capital expenses. It's not a new request. SLED began asking lawmakers for a new lab several years ago.

The $50,000 allocated so far has funded site and architectural studies, which determined a crime lab viable for the next three decades should be 117,000 square feet, Keel said.

Rep. Mike Pitts, chairman of the Ways and Means panel that writes law enforcement agencies' budgets, said the Legislature must consider borrowing money to take care of what he calls the core function of government — public safety. 

"SLED’s lab is one of the most important and vital pieces of the puzzle, and I don’t see a way to fund it other than a bond bill," said Pitts, R-Laurens, a retired law enforcement officer.   

Other law enforcement agencies' capital requests for the 2018-19 budget include $16 million for a new Department of Natural Resources headquarters and $23 million for construction at the Department of Juvenile Justice to comply with a 2016 law expected to put 6,000 additional young offenders under its oversight annually. The state law raises the age limit for prosecuting suspects as juveniles from 17 to 18 and keeps convicted juveniles incarcerated at DJJ longer. It's supposed to take effect in 2019, though the exact date depends on funding.

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A bond bill that would borrow nearly $500 million for overdue maintenance at colleges and other state-owned buildings is up for debate on the House floor when the Legislature returns Jan. 9. But the proposal includes no money for SLED's lab or other new construction. 

The prospect of any borrowing proposal is uncertain. The Legislature hasn't approved a bond bill for statewide maintenance since 2001.

Pitts' counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Shane Martin, said law enforcement will be a top priority in the budget, but he won't support borrowing to fund their requests. Taxpayers are already on the hook for too much state debt, Martin said. 

In 2015, then-Gov. Nikki Haley helped kill a $500 million bond bill, which did include money for SLED's lab, through social media and email blasts as the House debated it. Similarly, Gov. Henry McMaster's threat to veto the revamped $500 million borrowing proposal is partly what delayed debate earlier this year. 

McMaster agrees with Pitts about the importance of law enforcement and will make public safety a top priority in his first budget proposal next month, said his spokesman, Brian Symmes.  

But "he remains unconvinced that a bond bill for state government buildings is needed at this time," Symmes told The Post and Courier.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.