SARANAC LAKE - The dissolution of village court isn't expected to save the taxpayers as much money as village officials predicted four years ago, at least not this year.
It's also increased the costs and workload of the three town courts that are now absorbing the village court caseload, but they're getting more revenue from fines and bail than they were before.
Although its last session was March 17, village court officially came to an end Monday when the term of its last justice, Kenneth McLaughlin, expired. The process of dissolving village court was set in motion by an August 2010 vote of the village Board of Trustees.
The courtroom that Saranac Lake village court used Monday sits empty Wednesday afternoon. Harrietstown town court still uses the room inside the Harrietstown Town Hall in downtown Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
Old law books line a shelf at the back of the Harrietstown Town Hall courtroom.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
At the time, village officials said the change would eliminate duplicated services since the three towns that overlap into the village - Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand - all have local courts that could take on the village court caseload.
They also predicted that the change would save their taxpayers up to $50,000 a year, but that hasn't proved to be the case so far. In their 2015 budget message to the village Board of Trustees, village Manager John Sweeney and Treasurer Paul Ellis said the net savings of closing village court this year will be approximately $5,000.
It could be even less if village police end up spending a lot of time traveling to North Elba Town Court in Lake Placid or St. Armand Town Court in Bloomingdale for arraignments and hearings. Harrietstown Town Court is held in the same Harrietstown Town Hall courtroom in Saranac Lake where village court was held.
Village Police Chief Bruce Nason said it's difficult to know at this point how much more it will cost his department to send officers out of town for court proceedings.
"It was discussed, but until we actually have a few of those arraignments, I'm not going to know the exact cost," he said. "We're anticipating at least a minimum of two to three hours extra time that would be associated with an arraignment, but that's a guess."
Ellis said Tuesday said he didn't add any extra overtime to the proposed police department budget to cover officers traveling out of town for court proceedings.
"I'm sure there's going to be some," he said. "I'm anticipating it can be absorbed by the current overtime."
While the $5,000 savings is less than what was predicted four years ago, Ellis said the village has saved money leading up to the dissolution of village court. One of the two village justice positions was eliminated two years ago, and the court's budget wasn't funded as much for supplies and materials as it was coming to a close.
"I think initially we thought the cost savings was going to be greater, but we've been weaning the budget down the last few years anyways," Ellis said.
Town costs, revenue
Officials in North Elba and St. Armand haven't raised any big concerns about their towns' courts taking over the village court caseload.
North Elba Court Clerk Jennifer Mihill said her court has received about 200 pending cases from the village of Saranac Lake, plus some new arrests that have happened over the past month.
"There is going to be a difference," she said. "It's not going to be uncontrollable, but it is more work and more time consuming."
Could the increased caseload lead to increased costs for North Elba's court? Mihill said it's too soon to say. After the first year, the town will have a better sense of whether its court expenses are up, Mihill said.
The town of Harrietstown is taking on the bulk of the village court caseload. McLaughlin, who is also a Harrietstown judge along with Michael "Beef" Bevilacqua, said about 80 percent of the village court's cases were in the Harrietstown section of the village, although he couldn't give an exact number.
"Our two judges, their caseload went from like four cases to 36 to 40 cases a night," said Harrietstown Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua. "It has already impacted us some."
With more cases to handle, the town's court costs have increased.
"We had to raise the salaries of the two judges to accommodate for the additional time," Bevilacqua said. "The court clerk is now a full-time position. It used to be just a part-time position."
The town courts will collect more revenue from fines and fees, but will it be enough to offset those new expenses?
"If anything, we might break even, but I think it's probably going to be a little bit of expense for us," Bevilacqua said.
Ellis said the towns won't just get revenue from new cases. Over the past few weeks, he said the village has been transferring bail monies and fine revenue from current village cases to the town courts.
"We've also been going at it like gangbusters trying to collect on old outstanding fines and things," Ellis said. "That was somewhere around $75,000 to $80,000. Now that the village court is closed, the receivables have been transferred to the town courts, and they get to collect and keep any money that comes in from that even though it would have been a village case from years ago."
McLaughlin said village court stopped taking new criminal cases after March 10. Over the past few weeks, records for pending cases have been divided up and sent to the three towns' courts, he said.
The date of Harrietstown court has been moved from Wednesday to Monday, the same day village court used to be held on.
"Most of the (defense) attorneys are used to coming to court on Monday nights, and it worked out with the district attorney's office better, having it on Monday," McLaughlin said.
Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau thanked McLaughlin Monday for being the village's lone justice over the last two years.
"You did it at very little extra cost," Rabideau said at the village board meeting. "You did it with goodwill and a great attitude, and you helped the village a tremendous amount. You're the last and best village justice, in my book."
Rabideau gave McLaughlin a ceremonial gavel with an inscription that says it was presented "for faithful and diligent service to the community of Saranac Lake."
The big picture
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said his office went through the same process over the last two years when Malone village court dissolved. Its caseload was taken over by Malone town court.
"From a taxpayer's standpoint and just from simple economics, it makes sense to seriously examine consolidation of even more courts," the DA said. "We have some courts where we literally send an attorney twice a year. That's how little their caseload is. Yet they have a separate computer system, separate recording system, separate court system."
"You need that local presence," Champagne added, "and I'd hate to see people from Tupper Lake have to drive all the way to Saranac Lake or vice versa, but on the other hand, there are sections of the county that really lend themselves to consolidating courts. We have all these courts immediately surrounding the Malone area, and many of those courts could easily merge."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.