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January 3, 2013

Trustees set hearing on court consolidation

By JIM AUSTIN
Cooperstown Crier

---- — The board of trustees will conduct a public hearing later this month on a local law that calls for the consolidation of the village and town justice courts. If the consolidation is approved, the village court would be merged with the town court.

Mayor Jeff Katz said last month that if, following the hearing, the board of trustees adopts the law, it is subject to permissive referendum and could be placed on the ballot in the annual village election in March. Following adoption, he said, residents would have 30 days to file a petition with the appropriate number of signatures to place the question on the ballot.

Katz said that was one reason the board acted now so that it could avoid the expense of having to schedule a special election if the question goes to the voters.

The consolidation, he said, would not take place until the end of the current justice term in 2014. The village court has two justices. Leslie Friedman is the village justice and Gary Kuch serves as the acting village justice. Friedman and Kuch are also the justices for the town of Otsego.

According to Katz, the village would retain the revenue it collects from parking tickets, but would lose $8,000 to $10,000 in other revenue. The budget for the village court would be greatly reduced and the village would realize a savings of approximately $35,000 annually.

“That represents almost as much as a two percent tax increase,” he said.

The town of Otsego’s facilities in Fly Creek are more suitable for court, Katz said, adding that often lawyers must conduct meetings with their clients in the hallway in the village municipal building.

According to Friedman, the board of trustees would not be abolishing its justice court, but would be merging it with the town of Otsego’s court. 

“I don’t think it should be discussed as abolishing the village court,” she said Monday. “There’s no difference in what the court provides.”

It would offer the same coverage for residents, she said, and may also offer opportunities for cost savings and greater efficiencies.

She said the facilities are much better in the town’s building, but that her primary concern is that the court functions properly and justice is served.

“I think it would be fine,” she said.

Otsego Town Supervisor Anne Geddes-Atwell said that at this point, she and the town board had not looked too hard at a court consolidation.

“It’s the village’s decision. It’s not our decision,” she said.

Atwell said she plans to meet with Katz at the end of the week to have a better understanding of the implications for the town. 

Village residents already contribute to the cost of the town justice court, but Atwell was uncertain whether, or how much, that would increase with a consolidation.

“I will be doing more research and will have more details fairly soon,” she said.

The hearing will be held Jan. 28 in conjunction with the board’s regular monthly meeting.