With just three months left until the city has a fourth judge, there’s still no place for that judge to work.
City and state Office of Court Administration officials toured three prospective sites Friday, including the upper floor of The Daily Gazette building. It has been available for rent for a year.
The top contenders at this point are the Gazette building at 2345 Maxon Road Extension and Center City at 433 State St., according to city and OCA officials.
Fourth District Administrative Judge Vito Caruso said the Gazette building would be cheaper to turn into a courthouse, which would save the city money on rent. But he said Center City, while a tighter space, would be more convenient to those who must go to court.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said they also considered a vacant building on Eastern Avenue, but largely abandoned the idea after learning it would cost $3 million in repairs and about $1 million in renovations to make it a courthouse.
Another option was finding space for an additional courtroom at City Hall, but McCarthy said there’s no room.
McCarthy pushed for night court instead, arguing that it would be the cheapest way of adding a fourth courtroom.
But last week, Caruso told him that wouldn’t happen.
“Night court is a non-starter,” Caruso said. “We can’t afford to do night court.”
OCA would have to pay for additional staff to run security, as well as court officers to work in the courtroom and collect fines, among other tasks, Caruso said.
“All of whom work during the day. We don’t have the luxury of multiple people in those positions,” he said.
That leaves the city shouldering the cost of finding a fourth courtroom. At either Center City or the Daily Gazette, the city would rent space for all four courtrooms, plus the associated spaces needed for judges, inmates, attorneys and staff.
“That’s the ideal,” Caruso said, adding that OCA would not need as many security officers as it has now, running both the courtroom at the Police Department and the other courts at City Hall.
In addition, he said, clerks wouldn’t have to hurry from one building to the next to get to their various courts.
“Sometimes we have difficulty because the clerks have to walk a couple blocks. The judge is ready to go [at the Police Department] and the clerk’s at City Hall,” he said.
But renting space for four courtrooms is much more expensive than finding space for just one. The city must pay that cost.
New rules would come into play if the city rents space at either Center City or the Gazette building. There must be private bathrooms for each judge and chambers that connect to the courtroom, among other requirements. The city was allowed to overlook some of those rules at City Hall because officials were squeezing additional courtrooms into spaces that are normally used for other things. One courtroom is the City Council chambers.
Despite the cost, McCarthy said he’s looking for a way to put all the courtrooms in one building.
The Gazette building could be turned into courtrooms quickly and relatively inexpensively, Publisher John DeAugustine said.
He noted that the drop ceilings and hollow floors make it easy to put in new plumbing for bathrooms and new wiring for other court requirements.
“Our building is a very modular building,” he said, predicting the work could be done in “a month or two” after the city has plans drawn up.
No price has been discussed yet, he said, but he added that he would charge market price. Generally, landlords pay for the cost of renovation, and that cost is factored into the rent, with long-term rental agreements so that the landlord makes up the cost by the end of the contract.
Wherever the courtrooms are placed, Caruso hopes they aren’t there forever. He still wants all the county and city courts in one location.
“After 14 years that we’ve been thinking about it, I think it’s time to stop thinking about it and start doing,” he said. “We have to make these interim solutions work until we can come up with a county court complex.”
There is a pressing deadline for the interim solution. The new judge will take office on Jan. 1, possibly without a courtroom. Caruso said that judge could temporarily use City Court Judge Guido Loyola’s courtroom at City Hall while Loyola continues to work as an acting county court judge.
But that would be temporary, Caruso stressed, while the city was waiting for work to be done on a new courtroom.
By the end of next year, McCarthy said, he must have a fourth courtroom somewhere.
DeAugustine said he could easily get the Gazette space ready in time.
“That would be a very easy deadline for us,” he said.
The Gazette is renting out the upper floor of its building because its new press takes up much less room, leaving plenty of space for employees to work on one floor.