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Verdict is in: we need fewer courts

There is a lot of hand wringing going on about the economic costs of the pandemic, especially as it is now rapidly raging all across the country to a level not seen before. As COVID-19 caseloads soar, more and more communities are trying to curtail the virus’s spread by shutting down businesses and services again. Since experts predict the situation will likely get much worse before it gets better, in addition to trying to help business stay afloat, it’s also time to start thinking about ways to reduce governmental costs without sacrificing services we rely upon.

One way to do that would be streamlining New York State’s outdated, complex, twisted maze of a court system. In addition to the federal United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, located in Manhattan, and the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, located in Buffalo, there are 13 judicial districts of the New York Supreme Court. There is also the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, the New York Surrogate’s Court, New York Family Court and the New York Court of Claims. In Mayville there’s the Chautauqua County Supreme and County Court as well as the Surrogate’s Court, both at the Chautauqua County Courthouse, and Family Court in the Chautauqua Municipal Building. Many have argued in favor of consolidation at these upper levels of the New York State system, and this has been in discussion for a while now, but a greater impact could be made faster at the local level.

In addition to the City Courts in Jamestown and Dunkirk, there are 30 additional individual town and village courts in Chautauqua County. Some of those local courts are open daily. Others have very limited hours. Some are open only two hours one day a week. Five don’t list any hours they’re open. Instead, they just say, “Leave a message.” Regardless of their hours of operation, all of these courts take up space, need security, have assigned staff, and require administrative oversight. Those things all cost a lot of taxpayer money.

The pandemic has shown us many things, one being our ability to adapt. This year some types of court appearances have been limited and some proceedings have moved to being conducted remotely. Instead of going to court in person, some accused persons and defense attorneys now appear at the courthouse via Skype or telephone. Beforehand, accused people often consult their attorneys by phone, rather than in person.

Change is possible. If some of these small local courts merged it would provide more access for everyone. Instead of small courts being able to afford to be open only a few hours or days each week due to staffing constraints and cost concerns, think how much more responsive a consolidated simplified local court system would be, and how much taxpayer money could be saved. One highly qualified judge could preside over one municipal court serving multiple small communities.

That would increase operational hours for residents and save those small communities a bundle in operational costs. It’s more efficient for all involved. Reducing the number of courts, cutting back staff size, consolidating administrative oversight and court security would save more than most think. That saved money could then be put toward improving other public services such as police or fire departments, or it could be used to reduce the taxpayer burden.

One Village Board in Chautauqua County has already voted to dissolve its village court by the end of this year as a cost saving measure. In 2021, Silver Creek’s court cases will be handled by the Hanover Town Court. Other local communities would be wise to consider following their lead.

Across the country, court consolidation is saving municipalities’ money. In light of population decline in Chautauqua County, rising costs and falling revenue sources, it simply makes dollars and sense.

Patty Hammond is Economic Development Coordinator at the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation. The Local Economic Development Initiative is a standing committee of the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation. Send comments or suggestions to Patty Hammond at phammond@nccfoundation.org

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