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City Hall court renovation costs could exceed $1.5 million

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Watertown officials are projecting costs for renovations to accommodate a second City Court judge in City Hall could exceed $1.5 million.

City Engineer Kurt W. Hauk outlined preliminary plans for the first-floor renovations to the Watertown City Council during a work session Monday night.

Judge Catherine J. Palermo will become Watertown’s second full-time judge after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation Dec. 19 to increase the number of full-time city judges across the state. The state Legislature passed the measure last spring.

The required renovations include converting some court office space into a second courtroom; adding judge chambers and an office for another court clerk; relocating office space in another part of the court complex, and creating space for a secure prisoner holding area at the back of the building, Mr. Hauk said.

The actual costs could change, depending on the amount of asbestos removal and how much ductwork and piping is found once construction begins, Mr. Hauk said.

But he told council members the situation could have been worse.

“We don’t have to do the gutting of the first floor that we first thought,” he said.

Some of the space once was occupied by the city’s police department, including prisoner cells and the old police chief’s office. As required by the state, the second courtroom must be at least 1,200 square feet.

The city is required to pay for the renovations, while the state Office of Court Administration is responsible for judge and court staff salaries.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham stressed that the city had no say in creating the second judgeship and has little leeway in the amenities to accommodate the second judge.

As long as work must be done, the city also may construct an 800-square-foot prisoner access ramp at the back of City Hall, a project that the police department proposed several years ago but never completed but the state does not require.

During a meeting last week at City Hall, the court administration said it wants city officials to submit the preliminary plans by the end of next month. The court administration must approve the final project design, which most likely would be completed by a consultant with expertise in those kinds of projects, Mr. Hauk said.

On Monday night, Mr. Hauk could not provide a timeline for when the renovations would start or when they must be completed.

Judge Eugene R. Renzi, the other full-time city magistrate, is an elected official. But Ms. Palermo’s position is an appointed one. The city may seek home rule from the state Legislature to approve the second judge as an elected position for the 10-year term.

Ms. Palermo’s full-time status becomes effective April 1; her term ends in 2018.

City Council members appointed Judge Palermo in January 2012, when City Judge James C. Harberson retired. She replaced Judge Renzi after he was elected to the full-time position in November 2011.

City courts around the state have been handling an increasing number of cases each year, putting pressure on judges and creating a backlog of litigation. Now that there is a second full-time judge, more civil and small-claims cases can be handled in City Court, Mr. Graham said.

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