New Potsdam Town Court ready for village court merger
Sunday, December 15, 2013 - 8:28 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

POTSDAM -- The old Potsdam Town Hall at 35 Market St. has been renovated and updated and reopened as quarters for the town’s court, but consolidation with the village court is still two years away.

The renovation and re-use of the building comes after years of wrangling and figuring out how to either fix up the existing town hall or build a new one.

And it will close a chapter on the story of saving an old building, putting up a new one, and merging village and town courts.

“We’re still on track to dissolve the village court and consolidate with the town court,” said village Mayor Steve Yurgartis.

“The board passed a resolution to that effect but there is a state law that requires the term of a sitting justice to expire” before changes of this nature can be made to a municipal court.

Yurgartis explained that there are two years left in the four-year term of Village Justice Nicholas Pignone.

“Once his term expires the village court will cease to exist and court functions will move to the town.”

This will fulfill one of the campaign goals set by Yurgartis, a strong advocate of making municipal government more efficient.

The building, more than 120 years old, is a former bank that had slowly deteriorated over the decades to the point where the back wall was splitting and the roof was leaking onto the judges’ desks in the court space upstairs. The town was under pressure to solve the problem of the lack of an elevator to move people who needed it to get to the upstairs courtroom.

And downstairs, there was no private space for the assessor and other town workers in the office to speak privately with taxpayers. And there was no public restroom.

Early on, the town government decided to put up a bond referendum for a loan to build a new town hall. But the vote came just after a new revaluation of town properties was completed, and, with assessments up, town taxpayers were not in the mood for borrowing more money.

“Five years ago a $3.2 million bond issue was turned down by voters. We could have had the vote before revaluation, but I insisted it come afterward,” said Town Supervisor Marie Regan.

The vote against the bond left the town with limited choices.

“But that didn’t change our problems,” Regan said. The choice remained: renovate the old building or tear it down.

The town eventually did build a new town hall on Elm Street, which opened this year, with money it had saved. Meanwhile the town and village agreed to consolidate the village and town courts, and to use the old town hall as a court building.

That renovation did not go smoothly. Old petroleum pollution was found at the site, and that stopped work while it was cleaned up. And the job of putting in the elevator was complicated by rock where the bottom of the elevator shaft was to be dug, which had to be removed by more strenuous methods than had ben envisioned.

But with those problems overcome and with help from a grant, the court building has been completely refinished inside.

The court now has a proper judge’s bench, prosecution and defense tables, a jury box, and pews for the public.

Two rooms have been set aside for village court personel, and there are offices for two judges. There are rooms for lawyers to confer with clients.

One major complaint from authorities has been assuaged with the new elevator, which finally allows handicapped people to easily get upstairs to the courtroom.

Security cameras allow the court clerk and others to keep track of movements in the building.

New heating and lighting will cut energy expenses.

One quirk that arose during the refit, Regan says, was concern over the windows in the courtroom.

In spite of earlier approval of the design, “the court system now says we can’t have windows because they’re afraid of attacks,” but the windows in the courtroom were already in place. A compromise has been reached where “sheer curtains and heavy drapes are on the windows so during court, we can just pull these drapes. It was an added expense, but I think they’re lovely,” Regan said.

All in all, Regan said, she believes the project is a success “and I think we will be well served by the work done here.”

With reimbursement coming form the state for the town’s $300,000 match for the grant, “this building is completely paid for and so is the new town hall,” Regan said.