Southold Town Board members got a little bit of sticker shock Tuesday morning when they learned it would likely cost the town $3 million to build a justice court behind town hall.
Court proceedings are currently handled in the town’s one main meeting room, which is also used for government meetings and does not have any enhanced security features.
Regular meetings are occasionally moved to conference rooms when the meeting room is needed for arraignments.
One court officer in Southold resigned last year over safety issues he’d seen in Southold’s court, while the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society has asked the State Supreme Court to force Riverhead, Southold and Southampton Town justice court proceedings to be held in county district courts, which provide private space for attorneys to meet with clients.
On the East End, legal aid attorneys often meet and conference with their clients in crowded hallways within earshot of other court attendees.
East Hampton has its own dedicated justice court building.
Riverhead is also looking into moving its court, currently housed in a portion of the town’s police station, due to its unsafe layout.
Councilwoman Jill Doherty, Town Justice Rudy Bruer, new Court Director Leanne Reilly, Town Public Works Director Jeff Standish & Town Engineer Jamie Richter outlined some future options for the justice court at the Southold Town Board’s Tuesday morning work session.
Mr. Richter said the town had looked into building a 9,000-square-foot pole barn or a modular building behind town hall and found that both options would cost around $3 million.
The town’s current meeting room is about 1,000 square feet, but the new court building would have two seperate court rooms, offices for judges and rooms for attorneys to conference with their clients. Three part-time judges and two part-time clerks would work in the new building.
While the pole barn would be 10 percent cheaper, Mr. Richter said the town could put a full basement, to be used for record storage, under a modular building.
But members of the town board were put off by the cost of the proposal.
“When you talk about capital needs, we have a couple projects coming down the pike,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “We need to set priorities. There’s a limit to what we can assume until we retire old debt.”
Councilman Jim Dinizio said town hall is currently only used for court functions 55 hours per month.
“Next month it could be 60 [hours] but it’s not 12-7. It’s not even 40 hours a week,” he said.
Mr. Dinizio asked board members to consider using the old Peconic School building, recently renovated for use by the town as a community center, as a part-time temporary court.
But many improvements to that building were made using Community Development Block Grants, which would prohibit the town from using the space for government administration unless those grants were paid back.
Mr. Richter added that, the way the Peconic School building is set up, there would be no way to seperate justices from the general public within the court building.
“Flow is what’s causing us to look at spending this money,” he said. “There are a lot of unsafe conditions that go on now.”
“We need to know that is not a good spot, if that’s the case,” said Mr. Dinizio. “I went there a couple times and there were a couple ladies playing gin rummy in one room. It’s definitely underutilized.”
Mr. Russell said that the town renovated the Peconic School building in the hope of expanding recreation programs, which hasn’t yet happened.
“We can’t grow our recreational program and we really should. Recreation programs pay for themselves,” he said. “That probably sounds like a pipe dream, but we bought that with the plan that we can do more.”
Councilman Bob Ghosio suggested the town build an expansion on its current town hall instead of constructing a new building.
“This building was never designed to be expandable,” countered Mr. Russell. “The question is, do we build the justice court we want or the justice court we can afford?”
Justice Bruer said the justice court does run into trouble on the rare occasion they have to schedule jury trials.
“I wouldn’t be able to until April, based on the availability of the room,” he said. “I have one booked for the end of the month and one next month. In many instances, you get to the courthouse steps and a lot of times these cases fall. But they’re looking at three to four months before they can be heard and they’re entitled to be heard.”
The town has also recently received a $16,800 grant to help improve security in the justice court, of which $10,000 was to be allocated toward bulletproof glass in front of the bench and part was to be used for a metal detector at the entrance to the court.
Ms. Reilly said the town is expecting to receive the grant money this month, but she’s not sure if it’s smart to go forward with installing bulletproof glass if they’re going to build a new justice court.
Ms. Doherty said the justices are comfortable with holding off on the bulletproof glass, especially if the town moves forward with the metal detector when the grant money comes in.
“As soon as we can address anything, we should do that,” said Mr. Ruland of the metal detector.