County eyes consolidation of area courts

Increased caseloads and limited staffing are keeping the Chautauqua County Public Defender and District Attorney offices busy nowadays.

Add the 30-plus local courts throughout the county that assistant district attorneys and public defenders need to be present at, and schedules are tightly packed.

Many counties throughout the state today are examining the idea of consolidating courts, and County Executive Vince Horrigan says the county looking into it too.

A panel comprised of local leaders including Horrigan are formulating shared service ideas as part of a state requirement set out by the governor to find new ways to save taxpayers money. The preliminary plan unveiled by Horrigan at Wednesday’s County Legislature meeting in Mayville includes several ideas including a countywide court consolidation initiative.

Per an item in this year’s state budget, county leaders need to convene a panel, develop shared service plans and submit them to the state for possible funding.

The state initiative is separate from the $20 million Municipal Consolidation and Government Efficiency Competition, of which Chautauqua County is a finalist.

Many items within the plan required by the state are mirroring what’s found in the county’s competition application besides the countywide court consolidation idea. Horrigan said it will require research and data collection to see whether consolidating courts makes sense, and if so, which municipalities would be involved and whether the number of judges could be reduced.

“Obviously there needs to be courts in Jamestown and Dunkirk, but maybe there could be two or three (courts) we could centralize and get efficiency,” Horrigan said. “We’re looking at how do we break the courts into a configuration where we can better support them with DAs, public defenders and transportation by the sheriff’s office and also save on facility costs.”

The county Public Defender’s Office is required to be at every first appearance anytime and anywhere, and Public Defender Ned Barone said it’s putting a lot of stress on his office that’s already overwhelmed with cases.

As for consolidating courts, Barone said it could be helpful.

“We have a substantial amount of courts,” he said.

Horrigan said he’s gained feedback from a few individuals representing municipalities who thought it would be worthwhile to examine. Horrigan said he’s also spoke with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and Paula Feroleto, administrative judge for the Eighth Judicial District, about it.

“What we want to do is look at volume of cases, the revenue that comes from these, the impact on judges and other things,” he said.

The public will have the opportunity to learn about the initiatives within the countywide shared services plan, including court consolidation, next week. Hearings are going to be held at the Fredonia Technology Incubator at 214 Central Ave. in Dunkirk on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.; Emergency Services headquarters at 2 Academy St. in Mayville on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.; and the county Industrial Development Agency board room at the BWB Building at 201 W. Third St. in Jamestown on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Other initiatives listed in the countywide shared service proposal include a study to look at combining fire departments; a water and wastewater operator cooperative; a Dunkirk-Fredonia wastewater treatment collaboration; town consolidation between Gerry and Charlotte along with a proposed village dissolution of Sinclairville; Jamestown Police and Chautauqua County Sheriff’s merger; Lakewood-Busti and Ellicott police merger; shared Dunkirk and Fredonia police facility; and a shared Hanover and Silver Creek municipal facility.

Once hearings are complete, the local panel will vote to approve the plan. After that, it would be sent to the New York State Division of Budget for review. If approved, the court consolidation initiative could see implementation by 2020.


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