The village of Scotia is no longer interested in consolidating courts with the town of Glenville and the decision has cast a spotlight on how local municipalities are dealing with pressure from the state to provide shared government services wherever possible.
Scotia Mayor Kris Kastberg said the village trustees decided Tuesday they would no longer pursue a merger of the village and town justice courts. While it was originally thought that consolidation would increase the efficiency of the court system and save taxpayers money, he said further investigation showed the potential for added expense to the town and operational inefficiencies at the village level.
“Anytime you consolidate a service, the two things you look at are whether you can improve service to the customer or whether it will save money while maintaining services,” said Kastberg. “After doing a financial analysis, there was no compelling financial reason to merge the courts.”
Scotia had a little less than a year to consider the change, since village Justice Jason Frament ends his four-year term this December and state law requires that governments wait until a current justice finishes his term before abolishing a village court. But the decision reached this week took place just one month after Kastberg and town Supervisor Chris Koetzle first proposed the idea.
Koetzle expressed disappointment at the village’s decision and said the obstacles that Kastberg listed could have been overcome with a little effort and creativity.
“Anytime you start to look at sharing services or consolidating services, there are going to be bumps and issues you have to work at,” he said. “I’m the type of person who believes there’s a solution to every problem. Sometimes they’re hard to find and you have to work at it. But I don’t feel as though, looking over his list of issues, there was anything that was a deal-breaker for the town.”
The village’s decision was based on a mix of financial and operational considerations, said Kastberg.
Scotia holds court every Thursday on the second floor of the firehouse on Mohawk Avenue. Depending on the types of cases being heard in a given week, the load can range from 30 to 140 cases in a night. Glenville holds court twice a week at the town municipal center on Glenridge Road. Depending on the types of cases heard, the load can range from 60 to 100 cases in a night.
If the town were to absorb the village’s caseload, Kastberg said, it would have to either add another court night or extend the hours on a given night. Either way, he said, that would add expense for the town to pay its judges and clerks for the additional time. But Koetzle, who sat in on court several nights last month to get a feel for the caseload, said the town would have naturally offset that expense through increased revenue under a merger.
“There would be a potential that the town would have an increase in expenses, but that is not necessarily a foregone conclusion,” said Koetzle. “If managed correctly, the town could have gained revenue from the merger.”
Kastberg said the village court typically breaks even each year. But when factoring in health insurance, dental coverage, workers compensation, retirement, FICA and Medicare costs for the court’s three employees, the court has actually showed a deficit over the past three years.
In the 2010-11 budget season, the court brought in $66,564 in revenue and cost $84,429 to run. In the 2011-12 season, it brought in $74,860 in revenue and cost $103,649 to run. In the 2012-13 season, it brought in $103,507 and had $106,131 in expenses.
“There are programs that we hope to start in the village that will increase revenues to the court,” said Kastberg, “and by doing that, it shows that we’ll make money.”
Finances aside, Kastberg said there would be operational downsides to a merger. The town would have to deal with much more paperwork, especially for arraignments, he said, and that could cause operations to suffer.
“When we arrest someone, they need to be arraigned right away,” he said. “The arraignment is done here, instead of having to go out to Glenville every time. And according to our justice, police chief and attorney, enforcement of our village code and vehicle and traffic law could suffer.”
Koetzle said sending officers to arraignments a few miles out of the village and into town didn’t seem like a huge obstacle, but said he recognized the village’s concerns over paperwork.
“I don’t think we got to the point or took enough time to confidently say there was nothing we could do to address these issues,” he said.
While Scotia and Glenville have consolidated some services over the years, such as their assessors’ offices and animal control, they have been reluctant partners on other potential mergers, mostly on the village side of things. In 2011, both municipalities looked at consolidating police departments — a process that would have abolished the Scotia Police Department and merged its operations with Glenville. That proposal was met with vocal opposition.
Kastberg admitted he thought the court consolidation would be a sure thing. Now that it’s not, he said he doubts there’s more room for consolidation with the town.
“I was 100 percent sure that we would get rid of our court,” he said. “But I guess that’s why you do these analyses. [Koetzle] and I have worked well together and had a good, cooperative relationship. But the reason we keep taking stabs at things and don’t seem to settle on anything concrete to consolidate is because the things that are no-brainers have already been done and now we’re struggling to find anything more to do.”
Koetzle’s not so sure.
“I agree with him that we have picked the low-hanging fruit over the years,” he said. “But I’m an optimistic guy and I believe there’s still opportunities there, and we have to have the will to find them and see them through.”
Interestingly, both Kastberg and Koetzle have similar thoughts on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s outspoken push for consolidation among governments. They don’t like what seems to be a push toward consolidation for consolidation’s sake and they agree that consolidations should occur only when they make sense financially or bring efficiencies in government operations — or, ideally, both.
In the case of their justice courts, Kastberg and Koetzle don’t seem to agree on which kind of consolidation a court merger would be.
“I firmly believe that the future of municipal government is a shared-services model where we do not consolidate and lose our identity, but we find ways of sharing each other’s resources and sharing each other’s competitive advantages,” said Koetzle. “When one municipality does something better than the other, it makes sense to utilize that municipality’s resources. And I think there’s a lot between the village and the town that we can look at in that manner.”