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OCA guilty of costly court mandates

Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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A couple of letter writers last week wondered what Schenectady County is going to do with the old Trustco building it bought for $2.4 million in 2005 and has been sitting on ever since. Apparently, it’s going to use the building for courts and court offices. The county doesn’t want to — and shouldn’t have to — but considers it the best way to satisfy the (unfunded) mandates of the oh-so-particular state Office of Court Administration.

In the past we’ve seen OCA (whose “Guidelines for New York State Court Facilities” is so long and detailed it’s a trial to get through), force costly, dubiously necessary court renovations in places like Schoharie and Fulton counties. But these would be more significant and costly because Schenectady is bigger and has more courts and judges.

Some of those judges are retired, yet Schenectady is required to provide them with office space, which gives some insight into the OCA’s priorities. Another requirement is that judges have their own entrance to the building, separate from the public and even their own staff. If not for space-eating requirements like these, say county officials, the county could make do with existing facilities, which are old but adequate.

Since the late 1990s the OCA has been threatening the county with sanctions if it didn’t improve its court facilities.

At one point the county was considering building a new courthouse, which would have cost an estimated $25 million to $30 million.

Then it bought the empty Trustco building, intending to use it as swing space, moving county workers there while the County Office Building was being outfitted for court facilities. But that plan turned out to be architecturally unworkable.

Then, according to County Attorney Christopher Gardner, the recession came and OCA temporarily backed off. Now it’s threatening sanctions again. As Gardner says, while it’s fun to talk about defying, you really can’t.

The best thing would be for OCA to back off permanently, and the county to sell the Trustco building and get it back on the tax rolls. The county should also give serious consideration to having evening hours in some courts, which could alleviate the pressure for space and allow existing facilities to be used. That would add to personnel costs, but might still be worth it.

But the county’s plan to use the Trustco building for courts is not the worst thing. The county already owns it. There’s adequate parking, with the county controlling more than 150 spaces onsite and nearby. An empty building in the middle of downtown would be filled with workers, who would go out and eat and shop, helping with the redevelopment of Erie Boulevard and Lower State Street.

The Trustco building may not look like a courthouse, but could make an acceptable one at far less cost than building new.

 
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