WATERTOWN — On Wednesday, a woman approached about a dozen people sitting on a bench and on the floor of the City Hall lobby with a cardboard box of specimen bottles.
They talked among themselves about how things were going in their lives, while the woman called their names and other City Hall visitors walked through the lobby on their way to conduct city business.
Ben Cobb, who oversees the city court, confirmed the hubbub in the public lobby was part of the Watertown City Court’s drug court.
“That’s the only place we have,” he said.
The increase in traffic at City Hall for drug court is being cited as the reason major city court renovations are needed that will cost the city more than $3.15 million.
The state’s Office of Court Administration is pushing the state-mandated project because it requires separate courtrooms for each of the two full-time city judges.
Earlier this year, the state court administration accused the city of dragging its feet on the project that has languished for more than five years now.
But, with the sudden death of Judge James C. Tormey III in June, the project stalled once again. The city submitted conceptual plans in May for the layout of the second courtroom and how the city plans to ensure security for City Hall.
City Engineer Justin L. Wood, whose last day on the job at City Hall was Friday, said the city is waiting to hear from court administration officials about what they think of the plans.
“We haven’t received a response yet,” he said. “They’re still in review.”
Judge James P. Murphy, who replaced Judge Tormey as administrative judge for this district, said Friday the plans “were lost in the shuffle” with the judge’s sudden passing.
He expects the court administration’s engineering office in New York City to finally sign off soon on the review.
While there’s been resistance from some council members, City Manager Rick Finn said Friday the city has been working in good faith on the project.
The city is working on submitting paperwork to the court administration so it can qualify to receive one third of the cost on the interest of the renovations, he said.
Once plans are finalized, City Hall will undergo a major reconfiguration. Plans call for turning the second floor into a customer service center with the codes office taking over the already departed water department and the city clerk being located in the same proximity. The second courtroom will be located on the first floor.
Also, the public will have to go through security scanning equipment to get into City Hall after renovations are completed.
City Comptroller James E. Mills said the court project will cost the city about $312,000 a year for its bonding.
In criticizing the city last spring, Judge Tormey threatened city officials with cutting off millions of dollars in state aid if they didn’t proceed with plans for the court project.
Court administration officials have also said the second courtroom is needed for separate opioid and veteran courts and for additional domestic violence cases that the city’s two City Court judges will handle.
But mayoral candidate Jeffrey M. Smith insisted the second courtroom is not needed, saying it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money and the city cannot afford its $3.15 million cost.
The current system of two judges sharing a courtroom is working, he said.
“The needs are being met right now,” he said.
Mr. Smith, a former city councilman, said city leaders should meet with area state lawmakers to try to convince them to put a stop to the project.
His mayoral campaign has pivoted around making sure the project isn’t forced upon the city.