EDITORIAL: Make courts a good example

ECONOMIC (YAWN) DEVELOPMENT (SNORE ZZZzzzzz….) was the topic at a recent gathering in the second floor courtroom of the Tracy Memorial, the stately village hall for the Village of Chatham. Those of us who care about this topic learned a lot about programs aimed at improving our community. It was time well spent. But it never should have been held in that room.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Chatham Area Business Alliance Board of Directors, the group that organized the event, and I didn’t raise the slightest objection to the site. I thought of it–still do–as a landmark that shows off the charms of the village. So what could be wrong with that… except for people who can’t reach it.

The courtroom lies at the top of a marble staircase, an insurmountable barrier to people who have difficulty walking. The first floor, where the village police and clerk have offices and where most village meetings and court sessions are held, can be reached by a ramp.

But the building has no elevator and Town Court convenes on the second floor except for cases involving someone with a disability; then proceedings are moved to the first floor.

The County Courthouse in Hudson used to have a similar problem, which was only eliminated with the opening of the remodeled, access-compliant courthouse late last year. Before the renovations a disabled reporter covering a Hudson trial had to crawl up the stairs. The last time that happened was a few years before the renovations began in earnest. The reporter asked a colleague to carry his laptop computer for him. It was a shameful day for the county.

No wonder the Town of Chatham has been exploring the option of moving its courtroom out of the Tracy Memorial in the village and relocating it a couple of miles north at Chatham Town Hall on Route 295. But Town Hall, formerly the offices of a private firm, will need an addition to accommodate the courtroom, plus lawyer-client meeting rooms, judges’ chambers, etc. So the Town Board last week authorized its engineers to draw up preliminary plans and cost estimates.

Meanwhile, the Village Board is hoping to modernize the Tracy Memorial with an accessible second floor and a new wing. No one can say where the money will come from to expand either the Tracy Memorial or Chatham Town Hall. But taxpayers understand some significant portion of it will undoubtedly be squeezed from our pockets.

The economy is improving, but what good will that do us if our taxes increase to pay for upgrading two municipal facilities two miles apart that serve the same purposes for two municipalities called Chatham? It’s exactly the type of tribal bad behavior that Governor Andrew Cuomo blames for saddling New Yorkers with the highest tax burden in the country. It would entrench duplicated services and would waste an opportunity to save money and improve access to government services. It would also blow a chance to boost the economy of the central business district that serves both town and village.

Why do the Town and Village of Chatham need separate justice courts, anyway? Valatie closed its village court years ago, handing over its duties to the Town of Kinderhook Court. When this happened Valatie didn’t plunge into chaos. Consolidating the courts saves money without compromising local control. Nothing but costly tradition is served by maintaining village and town courts.

It might be cheaper to enlarge Town Hall than to expand and upgrade the Tracy Memorial. But over the long run, the Tracy is the better choice. Sitting at the core of local commercial and civic activity, it will enhance foot traffic and spending in the town–don’t laugh; even defendants have to eat. It will impact commerce right where all local planning says commerce belongs and where it will have the greatest positive impact on employment and sales, along with the smallest negative consequences on the environment and quality of life.

There would also be intangible benefits to upgrading the Tracy Memorial, things like demonstrating that both town and village care about the heritage architecture that is so much a part of Chatham’s appeal. Who knows; the town and village might learn to get along better and cooperate on other shared services. The alternative is more wasteful spending that proves nothing more than that the governor is right. It’s time for town and village boards to create a single accessible court system in Chatham housed at the Tracy Memorial.

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