COPAKE–A proposed cut to funding for a full-time court clerk position fueled a fiery debate during a public hearing on the town’s 2013 preliminary budget, Saturday, November 3.
The dissolution of the Copake Police Department as of January 1 has resulted in a 42% drop in Town Court cases so far this year and a 46% drop in the number of defendants. In response to those steep declines, Supervisor Jeff Nayer presented a preliminary budget for next year that cuts the allocation for the full-time court clerk by 49% from $22,892 to $11,500. Funding for the part-time clerk goes from $9,108 to $8,300, a 9% cut. Margaret Hosier is currently to full-time court clerk to Justice Brian Herman and Janet Glover is currently the part-time clerk to Justice John Spencer. Ms. Hosier fills in for Ms. Glover as needed.
Supervisor Nayer’s proposed budgetary reductions did not sit well with several residents who spoke at the hearing, often demanding answers to their questions and not waiting to hear the responses.
Planning Board Chair Marcia Becker began by asking: Does the Town Board value all its departments equally? What departments pay for themselves? Ms. Becker later declared the cut to the full-time clerk post to be both personal and political, noting Ms. Hosier is a Democrat and the only woman employed full-time by the town.
Lindsay LeBrecht said the court clerk job is not about the person, but is based on the workload. “If there has been a 42% reduction in revenue–these are hard economic times–it’s the responsible thing to do.”
“What other department is revenue driven?” asked Deborah Cohen. “Does the Highway Department occupy all of its employees all of the time? Why is one employee being measured by profitability?”
Supervisor Nayer said no department is profit driven. He said he was not singling out an employee, but setting the budget according to workload. The Highway Department has made many concessions over the years, including not replacing a full-time position when Highway Superintendent Bill Gregory took office, said the supervisor, noting that department employees have foregone raises, a part-timer had been dropped and Mr. Gregory has taken money out of his fund balance to offset increases.
Councilperson Linda Gabaccia said the court’s budget should not be cut until it can be determined if what’s going on is permanent or just a temporary trend. She said there is “some aberrant stuff involving the DA going on” and until it is settled, the budget should be policy driven and about providing services.
Nancy Schultz said as a manager at GE for 15 years, if she had told her superiors her workload was lower but she still wanted the same amount of money to do it, she would have been fired. “You are accountable to the taxpayers,” she said.
Mel Salberg, who identified himself as an attorney who spent a half century dealing with mill management and employees, said in the face of lost revenue, which is not disputed in this case, the company that has “cooperative employees” stays in business.
Rose Aulino told the board to look elsewhere for cost savings, such as making town employees contribute to their health insurance.
Court Clerk Hosier told the board she has a backlog of work to do dating back to when Judge Jim Blass was in office and, despite the lower number of cases this year, “there is always work for us to do in that office.” She said she takes her job seriously and works hard.
Judge Herman said this has not been a typical year due to “outside factors” and there is no reason to believe it will continue next year. He said the court clerk is a highly skilled position and that court procedures have become more complicated. He said to cut funding for the position would be a rash decision. He accused the supervisor of playing politics and of “looking to do this” for some time.
“I am not a political person. I am a tax-based person and a businessman,” Mr. Nayer responded.
Councilperson Kelly Miller-Simmons noted that she had spoken to representatives from both the Sheriff’s Office and the State Police and been told that no new patrols have been added to take up the slack of losing the Copake PD. “It is what it is; we have exactly the same amount of patrols, we’re not getting any more.”
When the hour-long public hearing was closed and the supervisor asked for discussion from the board on the preliminary budget. Ms. Gabaccia said the board should restore funding for the court clerks to the numbers the judges asked for. Councilperson Susan Winchell-Sweeney said a distinction should be made between the court caseload, which is down, and the workload, which is “still there.” To reduce funding for the clerks would be an “act of short-sightedness,” she said, adding the solution should come from working together with the department in the coming year.
Councilperson Jeanne Mettler read from a prepared statement noting her obligation to “ensure that the Justice Court is adequately funded so that it can carry out its statutory function” and “to be fiscally responsible.”
In her consideration of the issue, Ms. Mettler spoke to the judges and the state Office of Court Administration, she reviewed court records since 2008 and personally surveyed the 22 justice courts in Columbia County to compare their services and read a 12-page letter submitted by Judge Herman. She said revenue did not play a part in her consideration. Her research revealed that for the first nine months of 2011 the court had 1,097 cases or 919 defendants and in the same period this year the court had 640 cases or 496 defendants.
“It is not the province of the board to determine how the court arranges its staff–all we can do is set the budget and it is up to the court to make decisions within that budget. But no one–either in my personal interviews or the public workshop conducted last week–has suggested that the proposed budget will leave the staff unable to handle the current caseload.” She noted that it was foreseeable that the closure of the police department would result in a decreased number of cases. The consequence, she said is “permanent in nature” and “cannot be ignored.”
She concluded that it is not fiscally responsible to continue the court at the same budget it had last year and the court could offer the expected quality of service on the supervisor’s reduced budget.
After a motion made by Ms. Gabaccia to restore court clerk funding was defeated, Supervisor Nayer’s motion to adopt the preliminary budget as proposed passed with the supervisor, Councilpersons Mettler and Miller-Simmons voting in favor and Councilpersons Gabaccia and Winchell-Sweeney opposed.
The preliminary budget holds taxes flat in the coming year.