LAKE PLACID - Just nine months removed from the same choice, village voters will again decide on whether they want to keep their village court.
The proposition will be on the ballot for this village's regularly scheduled election on Tuesday, March 21 at the North Elba Town Hall.
Voters will also decide on the position of mayor, two trustee seats and the position of village justice. Each incumbent candidate is running unopposed. They are Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, Trustee and Deputy Mayor Art Devlin, Trustee Scott Monroe and Village Justice William Hulshoff.
Last June, the people of Lake Placid voted in a special referendum to not to dissolve the court into the town of North Elba by a final vote tally of 104 to 72.
The vote only took place after the village court's lone remaining justice, Hulshoff, circulated a petition to put the decision to ballot for the voters of Lake Placid. Initially last April, the village board voted unanimously to abolish its remaining justice position, which would have taken effect in April 2017.
If voters decide to dissolve the court, its caseload will fold into the North Elba town court, which meets in the same room as the village court. It would take cases beginning in April and Hulshoff's last day would be April 3.
At a village board meeting last month, Trustee Peter Holderied said if voters don't decide to dissolve the court, the village court would remain for at least another four years. Town Justice and acting Village Justice Dean Dietrich, who supports dissolution, said the same this week.
Proponents of dissolution
In conjunction with the Lake Placid village board, Dietrich and his Lake Placid-North Elba Community Development Commission have led the effort in dissolving the court. Dietrich said the move is recommended by the Government Center for Research.
If the court were to dissolve, the main change would be there would be four criminal court sessions with jurisdiction over town and village court cases rather than two court sessions designated for town cases and two court sessions for village cases.
The number of court clerks would remain at two and the number of working justice would remain at two, though Hulshoff currently works as both a town and village justice and Dietrich serves as an acting village justice. The two of them effectively serve the role of four different justice positions.
Dietrich and the village board cite a reduction in government savings and, in turn, a savings to village taxpayers as the primary reason for dissolution. Village Treasurer Paul Ellis said last week an estimated $45,933 - the cost of operating the village court - would be saved per year if the court dissolved.
Ellis explained how for the 2015-16 budget year the court ran at a net operations cost of $70,368. But $24,435 would be reduced from that cost of operation next year as the village has approved eliminating providing health insurance coverage for justices.
"The ultimate goal is working more efficiently and trying to achieve a greater economy of scale," Ellis said. "And that kind of fulfills the governor's interest in local governments sharing services or consolidating services when they can.
"Less government is good government," he continued, "and when you have duplications and overlaps in services, we have to look at ways of doing things smarter at less costs. That's ultimately the goal here."
Ellis added that though folding the service into the town will cost the town and its taxpayers many of whom live in the village - more, the town will be able to increase its tax levy for 2017-18 by the amount of savings the village will see. The town can do this, Ellis said, and remain under the state's tax cap.
Ellis said this is a "Transfer of Service," and would be done through the state's comptroller's office. He said this same situation took place in Saranac Lake in 2014 when that village transferred village cases to the three town courts that overlap into the village - Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand. Ellis was the Saranac Lake village treasurer at the time.
Ellis said dissolution would save village taxpayers seven-and-a-half cents per thousand dollars of property value - approximately $14.80 for a $200,000 home. He added that he was unsure of what the town tax rate for a consolidated court would be for village taxpayers, though he said "it certainly would be less than the 14 dollars."
Ellis said Dietrich's CDC study group also believes improvements in court services would take place with the dissolution. He singled out that Dietrich, the CDC group and the village believes the primary benefit to the people of the town would be more consistent attendance by the county District Attorney's office because the DA would have to travel here for fewer dates.
He said a combined court would result in a more efficient scheduling of cases, with shorter time periods between criminal court sessions that will allow cases to move forward more quickly
Dietrich added part of the cost-saving would derive from the elimination of duplicate justice software programs, duplicate phone systems and salaries for duplicate positions.
He and Ellis also said the tax system throughout the town would be more fair with a dissolution.
"Village residents support the village court," Dietrich said, "then, because they are also residents of the town, they support the town court. Town residents only support the town court. With a consolidated system, each resident would pay their fair share of the single town court system."
Dietrich added that this approach is currently used for the shared services of the village and town's fire districts and its joint code enforcement office.
Randall also said last month the board wanted to put this to vote again for the people of the village because he believes this year's vote will more fairly represent the people, as he anticipates a much larger turnout for the regularly scheduled election compared to last June's special election.
Opponents of dissolution
Hulshoff disagrees with much of what Randall, the village board and the CDC claims.
He said the main reason he believes the village court should remain is because he believes the public service it provides outweighs the benefits of streamlining government and cutting costs.
"If I only had to go to court two times a month, I'd love it," Hulshoff said, "but it won't be more efficient for the public that has to wait in court and be dealt with.
"We are bottlenecking the procedure," he continued, "and it's not serving the public in the best interest of the public."
Hulshoff was also critical of the village board for putting the measure to vote again so soon after last June's vote. He said with no challengers running against incumbent candidates, he wasn't so sure the Election Day turnout would be much higher - if at all - than last June's turnout when 176 people voted. Randall has said he expects closer to 1,000 voters this time around.
"The question is, I thought we had a democratic process, and 60 percent voted to keep the court," Hulshoff said. "And if we have fewer people vote this time, which vote is going to be more valid?"
As for the cost savings for taxpayers, Hulshoff viewed the situation as a negative one for those who live in the town.
"Why should the people of the town be burdened with a cost that is mostly village related court matters?" he said.
Hulshoff also said he drastically disagreed with Dietrich and the board with regards to consolidation making court more efficient for people. He said the reduction would clog up the process with longer court days and longer waits for people waiting to have their case heard.
"The number of cases won't go away," he said. "Lake Placid, with the nature of the community it is, it's a lot of people from out of town and the caseload I would say in general is increasing just as population is increasing. And the effect of the caseload depends on how many police officers are in the area, and in the last few years, the village police department has gone through a period of transition. It's a hard thing to measure."
Hulshoff added that if consolidation were to happen he believes the North Elba town court would become the busiest in all of Essex County and would result in more hurried hearings at times.
He also said in recent years he has not seen a member of the village board spend more than 30 minutes in village court and questioned their ability to recommend consolidation without first-hand knowledge of court sessions.
"If you want to deal with people in a reasonable manner, you're going to put pressure on the judges to move things along faster," Hulshoff said. "And in my opinion, people are going to get less quality out of it."