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State agency make reasonable proposal for city courtrooms in Watertown

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Watertown unexpectedly received a second full-time city judge when the New York State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo passed a law requiring additional city judges statewide.

While the city had not requested to be included in the legislation, it was. And on April 1, part-time City Judge Catherine J. Palermo joined Judge Eugene R. Renzi as a full-time judge. Now the city has two judges squeezed in quarters designed for one individual.

Watertown City Court is a busy one. In 2013, 16,560 people passed through the metal detectors to enter the city court facility.

Despite the diligent efforts of Judge Renzi, city court is still burdened with criminal and traffic cases that have lingered too long. The court system wants to clear such cases in 90 days.

The city court handled more than 9,000 cases in 2012, the state Office of Court Administration said. The city judge had to decide nearly 2,500 criminal cases, more than 5,000 traffic tickets and more than 200 small claims.

While the system has worked well in the past, the burdens on the court are escalating. Now that we are blessed with a second full-time judge paid for by the state, the city has a chance to improve its delivery of justice for those accused of crimes, trying to settle landlord/tenant issues or seeking relief in a small-business dispute.

Appearance in city court is a time-consuming process that requires defendants or plaintiffs to take time off from work. Lawyers, prosecutors and the judges are tightly scheduled.

But proceedings — especially trials — are unpredictable. Imposing cramped working space on judges impacts everyone involved in almost every court action, slowing the process.

However, the city rightly recoiled as it put a price tag on the required addition. The investment in the physical facilities is a city responsibility.

The operating expenses are a state cost. The state provides about $1 million in operating support covering all the expenses associated with the court and the judges. The state also pays for the costs of security.

Representatives of the Office of Court Administration have listened to the objections and are proposing a more reasonable and cost-effective solution. Instead of two fully equipped criminal courtrooms requiring 2,000 more square feet, the OCA is proposing a civil courtroom of 1,250 square feet — a significant savings from its original plan.

Further, the proposed reconfiguration would enhance security for the entire City Hall and every city worker there. Unfortunately, we live a society more prone to violent outbursts. As Charles W. Howard was being led from the court after his arraignment before Judge Renzi in late March on a Saturday morning, he struggled to free himself and used his head to break a plate glass window in the courtroom.

Court security is critical to the safety of everyone in the complex. The reconfiguration of the court facility would provide the same security system for all visitors to City Hall, which would then become safer for city workers and residents there on business. And the state would underwrite the operating costs.

The city delivered a strong message to OCA, and the people there listened. Their most recent plan is scaled back and designed in such a way that the city will be able to provide an efficient, streamlined court facility in a building substantially safer than it is now.

Watertown is on the cusp of growth. It is time to move forward with a modest investment in new court facilities to accommodate the demands of our justice system.

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