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Local justice court consolidation can be successful

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CANTON - Consolidation of local justice courts does not have to be expensive, given the experience of three Lewis County towns that combined services, and two municipalities in St. Lawrence County that dissolved their village courts.

In 2011, three Tug Hill towns — Harrisburg, Pinckney and Montague — created the state’s first elected combined justice court.

“Everyone is very happy with it,” said Richard C. Lucas, who was the county legislator who represented the towns at the time. “My goal was total consolidation of the towns. That’s where the real savings are. At least we started. The only issue we wrestled with was the legal one.”

State law requires every town to have a justice, so it took several years for the towns to gain approval to share a judge.

St. Lawrence County, facing burdensome costs for transportation of prisoners, public defenders and assistant district attorneys to appear in the county’s 32 town courts and other village and city courts, initiated a study that used the towns of Edwards, Hermon and Russell as potential court consolidators. The study was intended to create a framework for other towns that might wish to combine services.

Harrisburg, Pinckney and Montague had no problem with finding a suitable location because Harrisburg had a relatively new town hall that was centrally located and spacious enough.

A mutually agreeable location for a courtroom for Hermon, Edwards and Russell is not obvious, although several buildings are worth a closer look.

Building a 60-person capacity courtroom from the ground up was estimated to cost more than $500,000. The towns are not likely to approve a consolidation that involves spending a lot of money, especially since the bulk of the savings will be the county’s.

“I guess we’re interested,” Russell Supervisor Robert C. Best Jr. said. “But we’re not interested if it’s going to cost a million dollars.”

It costs Russell $20,000 a year to run its court, which brings in annual revenue of $15,000.

In 2011, Russell had 383 cases, Edwards had 371 and Hermon had 292. More than 75 percent of the caseload in all of the towns was vehicle and traffic tickets while the rest was penal, civil and environmental issues.

The study by Laberge Group, Albany, looked at existing court facilities in the three towns and what it would cost to rehabilitate them. Hermon is moving most of its offices, including its court, from its town barn to the former fire station, which was donated to the town.

The study put the cost of renovating the fire hall for a courtroom at $551,508, and an additional $27,862 for a joint facility. While the building offers room for other courtrooms if desired, Hermon plans to spend far less than the study estimated on its renovation.

Russell also has a vacant building, a former library that most recently was used as a health clinic.

“Everybody in Russell thinks it’s an obvious spot,” Mr. Best said. “It’s certainly a better use for it than having it sit empty. The question is, where’s the money going to come from? I’m wondering what the specifications are for a courtroom and how close you have to follow them.”

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, agreed with Mr. Best in wondering what the state will require and how much financing it will be willing to contribute.

“The question is what will the court system insist on?” he said. “The towns don’t want to fix something that they feel isn’t broken. The one who is interested in it mainly is the county.”

If the respective towns and the county accept the study, a next step could be focusing on a site.

“It won’t cost anything to agree where it would be,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “You don’t know what the cost would really be until you look at it.”

Consolidations also can take place on a smaller scale.

The village of Gouverneur dissolved its court in 2003 and the village of Canton followed suit a few years ago.

In Gouverneur, Town Court uses the former village courtroom in exchange for the village using the town dog kennel.

“The one hand washes the other,” Gouverneur Town Supervisor Robert R. Ritchie said. “We haven’t had any problems at all. In the long run, I’m sure the village saved a little money.”

Canton’s court consolidation also has been successful, Canton Town Supervisor David T. Button said.

“I think the folks in the judicial system are very happy with it, but the people who are served by it are especially happy,” he said. “They have one system they have to deal with.”

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