It's nice that the state Legislature this week passed a bill allowing cities like Schenectady to use their existing courtrooms at night instead of forcing them to build new buildings to handle rising caseloads.
But passage of the bill in the Senate Wednesday wasn't just a victory for the state's struggling cities. It was a victory for all local government in their fight against unfunded state mandates.
By limiting court hours in order to save itself money on staffing, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) forced localities to either make time for all their cases in existing buildings or create more courtrooms.
Building a new courthouse, however, could cost $1 million or more, a luxury most cities like ours can’t afford.
It was an unnecessary and inefficient mandate. But as long as the local governments pay, the state doesn't seem to care.
The bill is good, but it’s not ideal. It will indeed save taxpayers money on new facilities. But it won't be cost-free.
District attorneys, public defenders, clerks, private attorneys and local police officers will have to be paid extra to work those night hours. (Not all jobs avail themselves to split shifts.) And extra building hours means extra lighting, maintenance and heating costs for the cities.
Plus, the law is very strict, in that it restricts the night court to non-misdemeanor and non-felony cases — limiting how much it can be used. And the bill requires cities to get permission from the OCA to stay open.
So score one for the little guys in the fight for mandate relief. But the fight is long from over.