WATERTOWN — The state Senate on Wednesday passed “home rule” legislation that would reduce the number of City Court judges to one full-time and a part-time judge, so it now moves on to the governor for his signature.
Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, called from Albany soon after the Senate unanimously enacted on the bill that local officials had been waiting to see passed. The 60-0 vote came on the second to last day of the final session for the state Senate.
“It just passed. It’s a big win,” she said, “a big win for the taxpayers of Watertown.”
The home rule legislation is designed to resolve the issue of reducing the number of full-time City Court judges and avoid a $3.1 million court expansion that was pushed by the Office of Court Administration.
Stopping the project and reducing the number of City Court judges was a campaign issue for Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith.
Saying the news is “great for Watertown,” Mayor Smith stressed its importance because it will save the city more than $3 million.
While he requested that state lawmakers take up the home rule legislation, it can typically take a year or more to get any home rule legislation passed by both houses and then get it signed by the governor. It was particularly difficult under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It didn’t hurt to try,” the mayor said. “And it worked.”
Sen. Ritchie doesn’t know whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will sign the legislation, but assumes he will since he knows the dire financial straits that Watertown and communities across the state are in because of how the economy was hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
She hopes the governor will sign it “as quickly as possible.”
The senator said she worked to get the legislation passed to help the city.
“I’m thrilled it passed,” she said.
With only two ‘no’ votes by state lawmakers in the Senate and the Assembly, the mayor said Gov. Cuomo “has no reason” not to sign it and make it law.
At the request of the mayor, the legislation would revert to a 2014 law that created the second full-time City Court judge. A 1973 state law requires that judges have their own courtrooms.
Mayor Smith has wanted the home rule legislation passed now because City Court Judge Eugene R. Renzi is likely to vacate the city judgeship in January. He is running for Jefferson County Surrogate Court judge.
But Judge James P. Murphy, who serves as administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District, has made it clear that he strongly disagrees. He has insisted that the city should complete the second courtroom project.
Sen. Ritchie introduced the legislation in the state Senate, while Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, did the same in Assembly.
“I’m proud to have worked alongside Sen. Ritchie and successfully fought back against this unfunded mandate. Together we gained bipartisan support that will result in saving taxpayers $3 million on a courtroom the City of Watertown never asked for,” said Assemblyman Walczyk, who also hopes the governor will sign it.
“Local budgets are tight and removing this unfunded state mandate is a common-sense solution for Watertown taxpayers,” he said.