Murray town justices urge opposition to district court

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 17 May 2022 at 9:38 am

Spada and Passarell say district court would cost much more, be less responsive to community

Photos by Tom Rivers: Murray Town Justices Gary Passarell, right, and Ted Spada speak against a district court in Orleans County, saying it would cost much more to operate with less local accountability.

MURRAY – The town’s justices, Gary Passarell and Ted Spada, said they are strongly opposed to a district court coming to Orleans County, saying it will be more costly to operate, driving up local property taxes.

A district court judge could cost close to $300,000 for salary and benefits, and that person would have to be an attorney, Spada said.

The clerks would also be paid about $80,000 in salary. There would be mandated costs for security, stenographers, language interpreters and computer and facility upgrades.

“It would be a very poor business decision and would defy common sense,” Spada said about a district court.

The possibility of a district court has been suggested by District Attorney Joe Cardone and Public Defender Joanne Best, who say those courts would provide more equitable justice throughout the county. State aid would pick up some of the higher costs to operate a district court, Cardone and Best have said.

Murray Town Justice Ted Spada said a district court would be far more costly with higher-paid judges, clerks and other personnel.

Spada and Passarell are two of 12 town justices in the county. Passarell is retiring on Dec. 31 after 33 years on the bench. They are members of the Orleans County Magistrates Association, where all 12 justices oppose a district court.

“These are the courts closest to the people,” Passarell said about the town courts. “The town justices have a better grasp of common sense and their communities.”

A district court needs to include at least two towns. One district court could be enough for the entire county, or perhaps there could be two or three district courts, Cardone and Best have suggested.

Cardone and Best, during an April 27 meeting with the County Legislature and many of the town justices, said they are just trying to get a discussion going about the issue.

County Legislator John Fitzak attended the Murray meeting and he said the district court has a long way to go if it becomes a reality in the county.

“This is in its infancy beyond infancy,” Fitzak said. “Nothing is set in stone.”

If it moves forward Fitzak said there will be many public hearings and referendums in each for voters to have their say. Right now there isn’t enough information about the costs of the court and how it could work to have an informed discussion, he said.

He would like to see the town justices, district attorney and public defender get in the same room and discuss the issue at length.

“We’re all trying to make the system work,” Fitzak said.

Spada and the Magistrates have compiled a database on what the current town courts cost versus the costs of a district court.

Spada said a district court would cost $973,726 for one serving the four central towns of Barre, Albion, Gaines and Carlton. That’s four times the current expense of $245,235 for running the courts in the four towns, Spada said. This does not include the costs of infrastructure to bring the buildings up to regulations for a district court.

Two district courts at the west end (Ridgeway, Shelby and Yates) and the central towns (Barre, Albion, Gaines and Carlton) would cost $1,947,452 versus the $451,435 in the actual town budgets for 2022, Spada told county legislators on April 27 and again on Monday during the Murray Town Board meeting.

If there were three districts courts – west, central and east – The cost would be $2,921,177 compared to $562,127 to operate 10 town courts, and that doesn’t include the building upgrades that would be needed, Spada said.

If there were three district courts Spada said it would increase the county tax rate by $1.58 per $1,000 of assessed property or about 15 percent. The current tax rate is $10.09. The rate has gone up 60 cents in the past 10 years.

He said the local towns have worked to reduce their court costs. Eight of the 10 towns are down from two to one judge. Murray will go to one when Passarell retires.

“Orleans County is a relatively poor county,” Passarell said. “To burden them with the startup costs (and ongoing expense of a district court) would be an abomination.”