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Taxpayers continue to face the high cost of parochialism

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo and I don’t have that much in common, in the way of political philosophy. One belief we both share, however, is that there are too many units of government in this state, and the only way to really cut property taxes is to reduce that burden. I agree with him that any, and almost every, effort to consolidate and to share burdens will have a lasting benefit to taxpayers.

So when a proposal comes along that moves in this direction, I follow it pretty closely. A couple of years ago, the Tug Hill Plateau towns of Pinckney, Harrisburg and Montague got together and formed a consolidated court. They eliminated two court facilities in favor of a single regional court, they got rid of two elected officials in favor of one judge elected by the voters of all three towns and they got the state Legislature to pass, rather quickly, a law enabling all of this.

The new court is in Harrisburg’s town hall. It is just under seven miles from the old Montague court and less than 10 miles from the former Pinckney court. To date, if there has been any grousing about the new setup, neither I nor any or our Lewis County reporters heard it.

With this as a backdrop, St. Lawrence County commissioned a study of the towns of Russell, Hermon and Edwards courts to see if consolidation could be achieved there. Imagine my surprise to read of the many, many obstacles and the ridiculously high cost of the consolidation — just 50 miles from the Pinckney-Harrisburg-Montague success story.

The hurdles seem significant. The proposal continues to offer at least three and as many as five judges, for example. It says there are no logical buildings to use as a courtroom in the sum of the three towns, even though a building owned by the town of Russell that has been a library, then a health clinic, is begging a new use.

The study suggests that the best course of action could be a new, 60- or 90-seat courthouse, costing somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. That would give the courtroom a nice banc for the judge, a private room for attorneys, an anteroom for spectators to enter, lots of court security and on and on and on.

I’m sorry — what am I missing here? The three town courts handle about 1,000 cases a year in total. At least 750 of them are traffic cases; the study doesn’t tell us what percentage of those cases are cleared up through the mail, but I suspect that most people would rather mail in their plea, get a fine notice and pay by mail than take a weeknight to drive to court (especially when the mercury is hovering around zero), take a seat, wait for the case to be called — and then plead guilty and pay the fine.

The rest of the cases are a variety of civil and criminal actions, weighted toward the level of violation. The only felony cases brought to most town courts are arraignments in which the judge listens to the arresting officer and then binds the suspect over for a court well up the food chain to handle. Trails are likely uncommon, but the consultant’s report doesn’t cover that statistic — a telling omission.

Even if it cost $100,000 to renovate the old Russell Library, it would be worth a serious look. But only if the towns hitched up their knickers and decided they could do with, say, two elected judges for a three-town judicial district. Two judicial salaries spread over three towns can’t help but be cheaper than five judicial salaries spread over the same three towns. The combined fine money that accrues to the district could easily pay the costs, pay for the courtroom and offer, perhaps, a little left over to be applied against the three towns’ general funds.

Sadly, the wonderful lesson learned up on the Tug Hill Plateau seems unable to make its way down to central St. Lawrence County. No one seems to want to retire “their” judge. No one seems to want to look at a relatively low-cost shared facility. No one seems willing to relinquish their stranglehold on the old way of doing business.

And as long as this parochialism rules, there is little chance for serious consolidation or the use of shared services across the rural bands of New York. Until that attitude changes, the taxpayers will continue to pay and pay and pay.

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