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Dan Hust | Democrat

Longtime local justice Richard Hering (arm outstretched) urged the village board to create a bipartisan committee to quickly but thoroughly study the village court system.

Dissolve village court?

By Dan Hust
LIBERTY — January 7, 2011 — The Village of Liberty plans to abolish its court system this spring, unless voters tell it otherwise.
At a special meeting Wednesday night, the village board voted 3-2 to have the Town of Liberty take over court operations.
Mayor Richard Winters and trustees Shirley Lindsley and Corinne McGuire were in favor, while trustees Joan Stoddard and Luis Alvarez were not.
“The consolidation of the town and village courts will result in a savings to our taxpayers without the loss of effective services,” Mayor Winters wrote in a press release announcing the meeting. “Consolidation of court services would eliminate approximately $150,000 in expenditures. ... The base savings to the village will be approximately $50,000.”
That figure was revised to between $28,000 and $48,000 annually Wednesday night, and the uncertainty on the board was reflected in the packed meeting room, as well.
Can the town handle it?
Village Justice Harold Bauman was the most dubious of the merger, noting how much busier his court is compared to the town’s and the fact that he has developed a close working relationship with the police department, making himself available at all hours for arraignments.
Bauman and Police Chief Robert Mir pointed out that the town, while obligated to take over the village court’s duties if it is dissolved, is not obligated to run it in the same fashion – especially since it will have to initially take over operations without funding set aside in the town budget.
“What this would be, in effect, is an unfunded mandate,” Bauman pointed out.
The town board, in fact, told the village last week in a letter that it will not move town court operations into the village hall at a yearly rental cost of $24,000.
However, Town Supervisor John Schmidt said after Wednesday’s meeting that he does think the dissolution of the village court would benefit taxpayers in the Village of Liberty, who currently pay for both village and town court systems.
The town? Perhaps in the long run, but he wasn’t sure.
As for staffing, he indicated the town is willing to retain the village’s two court clerks.
“It sounds like the village really needs this staff,” he said.
Another longtime Liberty justice, Richard Hering, recommended the board set up a bipartisan committee to explore the potential costs and savings. The committee would issue a report before the March election, with the board’s vote repealed if the recommendation was to keep the village court.
Hering didn’t endorse or criticize the dissolution, but he believed the town would actually make money by taking on the village court operations – as much as $60,000 a year.
Bauman agreed a study is needed – but before a vote by the board.
“I think it’s silly to vote on anything without all the facts known,” he remarked.
But others, like Trustee McGuire, felt the matter could not wait.
“We as taxpayers can no longer sustain what we’re doing,” she explained.
Voters may get say
Still, this is not a done deal.
As soon as the vote was taken, Bauman was calling for signatures on a petition that could force a public vote on the village court’s dissolution.
Liberty businessman Dan Ratner was one of the first to sign, telling the board, “You arrived at this decision without significant information from multiple [sources]. You’ve done this at the eleventh hour!”
Yet board members and the public – on both sides – seemed encouraged by the petition drive.
“The people will have the final say,” predicted Liberty businessman Charlie Barbuti.
“We want the public to make this decision,” affirmed Mayor Winters, “not five people sitting at this table.”
Village Attorney Langdon Chapman said the petitioners have 30 days to submit a properly worded request for the vote, which must include valid signatures from at least 20 percent of the qualified electors in the village. (Those interested in signing can contact Judge Bauman at 292-6571.)
Should that effort fail, the court will be dissolved automatically in April.
Should the petition drive prove successful, however, a vote will be held at the village elections in March – which sets up an interesting conundrum.
Justice Bauman’s term expires in March (indeed, the only time a court can be dissolved is at the end of a judge’s term – in this case, every four years).
The possibility exists that the village court will remain, should the petition drive be successful and voters overturn the village board’s decision.
Thus, judge candidates are able to run – but for a position that may not exist even if they earn voters’ approval.
Chapman said if a judge is picked but the court is dissolved, the judge simply won’t be seated.
Budget woes not over
But according to the village board, Liberty has far worse dilemmas facing it, most especially a budget shortfall that could top $250,000 at the end of this fiscal year.
The court’s abolition will only make a dent in that figure.
Winters said he had called the meeting for ideas from the public on how to save more money, indicating that with no surplus to tap into this year, the board is at its wit’s end.
However, he didn’t have exact figures to give – i.e., the current deficit, a prediction of how high taxes might have to be raised under various scenarios, etc.
Some ideas did emerge, including cutting or even contracting out the highway and sanitation services, but once the vote was held on the court dissolution, the meeting broke up.
And Justice Bauman then promptly held an arraignment in the very same room.

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