Judge asks village not to dissolve court

SARANAC LAKE – A local judge wants the village to take a second look at dissolving his court, but the mayor says the village isn’t budging.

Village Justice Kenneth McLaughlin, in a Feb. 4 letter to village Manager John Sweeney, Mayor Clyde Rabideau and members of the village board, said doing away with village court will be inconvenient for some people involved in court proceedings, won’t save that much money and could affect the operation and costs of the village police department.

The village board voted in August 2010 to set in motion the process of dissolving village court. Under state law, the change can only take effect after the terms of the current village justices expire. In Saranac Lake, that’s April 2014, when McLaughlin’s current term comes to an end.

When the decision was made to dissolve village court, village officials said the move would eliminate duplicated services and save village taxpayers as much as $50,000 a year. The three towns that overlap into the village – Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand – all have local courts, which would take over the village court caseload once it’s dissolved.

McLaughlin, in his letter, said the purpose of the court is to dispense justice, not to generate revenue.

“The fact that justice courts do generate various amounts of revenue is simply a result of the process,” McLaughlin wrote. “The court currently generates money that is either more than or close to its operating cost. Can any other village department lay claim to that fact?”

While the cost of village court is a relatively small expense in the village’s $8.6 million budget, McLaughlin’s claim that village court is close to breaking even isn’t true, at least not recently.

The village budgeted $57,489 for its court system in the 2012-13 budget, an amount that includes the pay of McLaughlin and court Clerk Brenda LaPierre, plus supplies and equipment. It doesn’t include the cost of employee benefits.

Revenues for the court system this year were budgeted at $40,000, “but we don’t expect to hit that target,” said village Treasurer Paul Ellis. Court revenues have actually plummeted since 2009, when the village’s justices collected more than $100,000, Ellis said.

McLaughlin also wrote in his letter that village court serves the community’s citizens “by allowing them to file small claims, civil claims, summary proceedings within their own village.” He also said state mandates and the size of the caseload in the village, particularly the number of DWI cases, has created a big workload for the court and its clerk.

“The village court has grown and shows no sign of not growing in the future,” the judge wrote.

McLaughlin also raised concern about the cost and impact dissolving the court could have on village police. The majority of the police department’s caseload is in the town of Harrietstown, whose court is in the same location as village court – the Harrietstown Town Hall – but police will have to travel to town of St. Armand court in Bloomingdale and town of North Elba court in Lake Placid for warrants and arraignments involving crimes committed in those sections of the village. Roughly a quarter of the police department’s caseload was in the North Elba and St. Armand sections of the village, based on 2009 data.

“This will also cause small claim cases to go into other jurisdictions as well as evictions from different areas of the village, which are all held now by the village court,” McLaughlin wrote.

McLaughlin, who is also a Harrietstown justice, closed his letter by saying he’d continue to prepare for the dissolution of the court next year, if that’s what the people and the village board want.

Standing firm

The village will not reconsider its decision to close the court, Rabideau told the Enterprise Tuesday.

“We’ve analyzed the cost factors and revenue factors extensively, and we’re convinced we’ll save village taxpayers money by dissolving the court,” he said. “We do not see any disruption in police service. There might be some minor overtime, but the taxpayers still come out ahead.”

Asked if some village residents will be inconvenienced by having to travel to Lake Placid or Bloomingdale for court proceedings, Rabideau noted that 70 percent of the village’s 5,400 residents live in the Harrietstown section of the village.

“No change for 70 percent,” he said. “There’s about 20 percent that will travel 8 miles to Lake Placid and 5 percent will travel 6 miles to the town of St. Armand. It’s not a lot to ask for.”

Officials in St. Armand and North Elba haven’t raised any big concerns with taking over the village court caseload. While it will create more work, they’ll also be able to collect more revenue from fines issued for vehicle and traffic infractions, and criminal offenses within their section of the village. The village will still collect revenue from violations of village laws and ordinances.

Clerk takes new job

LaPierre notified McLaughlin on Feb. 4 that, with the court’s upcoming dissolution, she’s found a new job. She’ll start work as a principal account clerk with Essex County on Feb. 18. LaPierre said she’s willing to continue serving as clerk on a part-time basis for as long as she’s needed, including to help train her replacement.

Rabideau said the village likely won’t find a full-time replacement for LaPierre, as the clock is ticking on dissolution of the court.

“We will be talking about that in the next two weeks and figuring out how to handle the workload for the next year,” he said.