Making efficiencies

If voters don't overturn the decision, Lowville will no longer have a Village Court. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

The Lowville Village Board of Trustees has taken a prudent step in deciding to have the Town Court take over the community’s legal cases.

On Aug. 18, trustees voted to dissolve the Village Court. The Lowville Town Court, headed by Justice James Coffman, will begin handling the village’s matters next year. Officials held a public hearing on the issue last month, and no one opposed the measure.

“Mayor Joseph Beagle said that discussions to dissolve the local court began under his predecessor and were continued earlier this year. The significantly lower revenue from traffic tickets to cover the court’s costs resulting from the district attorney’s use of the traffic diversion program is the primary driver for court dissolution, [Beagle said],” according to a story published Aug. 14 by the Watertown Daily Times. “The traffic diversion program allows people to take an online course similar to Defensive Driving in order to reduce their charges and related fees or points on their licenses. No portion of the fees paid through this program [goes] to the municipality where the tickets were issued, as was historically the case. Pandemic-related financial impacts that are expected to continue and the constantly changing demands of state court reform have also contributed to the call for change, the mayor said. According to information provided by Trustee Dan Solomon to the mayor and the board, the court has been operating at an increasing loss since 2018, culminating in the court’s operating cost being $52,000 less than revenue from June 2018 to January this year. One of the reasons the discussion about ending the village’s court didn’t go further in the past is because under state law, a village court can only be dissolved if the village justice office is vacant or at the end the term. The current justice, Jennifer Scordo, will finish her term on March 31.”

It doesn’t make sense to continue operating the Village Court when it’s losing money. During the public hearing on Aug. 18, Beagle said that having the Town Court absorb the Village Court will save Lowville between $58,000 and $60,000 each year.

“I don’t like the idea the court has lost us money for the last three years,” he said when asked by a resident at the public hearing why members of the Village Board supported this measure, according to a story published Aug. 28 by the Watertown Daily Times.

“The village will retain its Police Department and revenue splits for tickets issued in the village, and the town will continue to be split in the same way,” the article reported. “Mr. Beagle has stated that the new online speeding ticket payment system implemented by the county, which does not provide revenue for the village even if the tickets are issued by village police to appear in village court, has caused court revenue to drop so that it doesn’t pay for itself.”

Residents who oppose the move to dissolve the Village Court may collect signatures on a petition to place a referendum on a future ballot. So people still have an opportunity to express their views on this issue.

The novel coronavirus pandemic exacerbated a situation that has strained municipal budgets. There are times when merging offices with other government entities makes sense, particularly in rural areas, and dissolving the Lowville Village Court is a case in point. Village trustees made the right decision, and we encourage residents to support them.

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