By Tyler Murphy
CLARKSVILLE — Town of New Scotland Court will soon hear cases from the stage of the old Clarksville Elementary School auditorium, after local leaders approved a plan to rent space at the building from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.
Court cases will be heard in the auditorium after the New Year, beginning Jan. 2.
“We’re very pleased that this opportunity became viable,” said New Scotland Supervisor Thomas Dolin, “It’s an excellent solution to some security issues found in an audit by the Unified Court System.”
“The old Clarksville Elementary building provides a better, larger and more secure facility; we’ve been operating in fairly cramped quarters,” said Town Justice David J. Wukitsch.
The judge said he and Town Justice Margaret Adkins would hear cases from the bench atop the auditorium stage.
“I’m looking forward to using the new space, which is also more user-friendly for the public,” noted Wukitsch.
The judge said there are more available parking spaces at the school than the town hall, where the lot tended to fill to capacity on busy court nights.
New Scotland’s two justices convene court every Thursday between 4 and 7 p.m. In addition, the town employs two clerks and pays a sheriff’s deputy to act as a court constable during proceedings.
Wukitsch reported the court disposed of 763 cases in 2011, collecting $73,723 from fines, surcharges, and fees. The justice noted 671 of those cases involved violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. New figures for 2012 will be released in January.
The town had been considering building an expansion onto the town hall to satisfy the report’s 2009 findings. Chief among the Unified Court System’s criticisms was a lack of adequate space for court officials.
“It was built to be a town hall, not a courthouse,” said Dolin as the board considered the lease at a summer meeting. “These issues we’re seeing in the assessment are nothing new to many rural towns.”
Dolin said the board had mulled over building a new wing at around $140,000 but said the space at the school fulfilled all the report’s critiques and made a project, at least for the short-term, unnecessary.
Security issues solved
Dolin said the town had been under pressure to improve court security ever since the 2009 assessment highlighted a number of issues not meeting current safety guidelines.
Some of the assessments’ concerns involved space problems, such as keeping court officials, inmates, and the public in areas designated specifically for them. Currently, officials and the public share, “closer quarters than the UCS would like,” said Dolin of the Unified Court System.
The assessment also noted a lack of control in public access. Dolin explained the layout of the town hall and placement of the doors made it difficult for police to secure or contain a possible situation.
The school building has been upgraded for use by the sheriff’s office, which included installing a new security system. A number of law-enforcement officers will be on the property, carrying out their daily duties, and the town will continue to pay to have a court officer present at proceedings.
The agreed-upon lease has the town paying $12,000 in rent annually.
Dolin estimated the cost of relocating the court to Clarksville in the thousands of dollars, but noted a pending $25,000 grant from the New York Office of Court Administration would likely cover the expenses.
The Clarksville Elementary School was closed by a split vote of the Bethlehem Board of Education in March 2011. The board school bused its 200 elementary students to other schools in order to close a million-dollar district budget gap. Instead of letting the unused building sit vacant, school officials decided to rent it to the sheriff’s office.
After signing a three- to five-year lease with the Bethlehem School District this summer, the sheriff’s office moved operations in December by consolidating stations in Cohoes and Voorheesville.
If Bethlehem school enrollment increases, the contract allows the district to cancel the lease after the fourth and fifth year, so students could return.
The decision to close the school was controversial in the hamlet of Clarksville and school officials at the time promised to open the building again for classes if conditions improved, though they warned that might not be for several years.
Though the district may save about $355,000 through rent and expenditures in the next five years by leasing the building, it will also have to continue making payments for bonds issued in 2006 to renovate the building. The bonds for just the Clarksville renovations will cost taxpayers about $1.86 million in that same five-year period, reported the district business office when the lease was signed.
Signing an agreement with the Albany County legislature, the New Scotland Town Board unanimously approved a similar three- to five-year lease to rent the school auditorium and some small meeting spaces for the town court.
“This is a very beneficial step. It cures a lot of problems that didn’t have any easy, inexpensive solutions,” said Dolin.