Will Watertown taxpayers save $3M? Lawmakers, judge have different answers

WWNY Will Watertown taxpayers save $3M? Lawmakers, judge have different answers

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Lawmakers are calling it a major step forward in the fight to save Watertown taxpayers more than $3 million on a second city courtroom - a project that’s an unfunded state mandate. However, the judge who’s overseeing the project is saying - not so fast.

A bill to eliminate the need for the second courtroom has passed in Albany and is now awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk and State Senator Patty Ritchie proposed legislation in June to reduce the number of Watertown city judges to avoid having to pay for a new courtroom.

On Wednesday, the lawmakers announced their bill received final passage. All in needs now is the governor to sign off on it.

In 2014, Watertown City Court judgeships increased from one full-time and one part-time judge to two full-time positions.

As a result of the increase, the city is required by state law to construct a second courtroom. The estimated cost to do so is more than $3 million.

Ritchie and Walczyk, at Watertown’s request, sponsored the bill to revert the number of judges back to one-full time and one part-time judge — a change that would eliminate the need for a second courtroom and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

“I’m proud to have worked alongside Senator Ritchie and successfully fought back against this unfunded mandate. Together we gained bipartisan support that will result in saving taxpayers $3 million on a courtroom the City of Watertown never asked for,” said Walczyk (R. - 116th District). “I sincerely hope the Governor will do the right thing and sign this bill into law. Local budgets are tight and removing this unfunded state mandate is a common sense solution for Watertown taxpayers.”

“Now more than ever, it’s unreasonable to ask cash-strapped local governments to bear the burden of unfunded state mandates,” said Ritchie (R. 48th District). “Our taxpayers need real relief and that’s what this legislation is providing. I would like to thank Assemblyman Walczyk for partnering with me on this important issue and am hopeful the Governor will sign this bill into law as soon as possible.”

“Simply put, this is tremendous news for the City of Watertown and its taxpayers,” said Mayor Jeff Smith. “The City of Watertown doesn’t need, nor can it afford a $3 million second courtroom. This fact has only been underscored by the financial challenges the City now faces as a result of the pandemic. I would like to thank Senator Ritchie and Assemblyman Walczyk for their concern for the taxpayer and their steadfast support on this issue.”

Fifth Judicial District Administrative Judge James Murphy, who’s overseeing the second courtroom project, says there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Murphy said he will be updating the state Office of Court Administration.

He added that if Cuomo signs this bill into law, the project will need to be reviewed and the court will have to do an analysis of what its operation in the city would look like.

Murphy said no matter what, some court renovation is still on the table. The city court facility must be made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and there were potential other upgrades, including judge's chambers.

Murphy said it’s certainly not an “all or nothing” situation, plus, the city must accommodate other courts, like drug court and veteran’s court.

It's unclear what this change could do to the cost of the project, he said.

Murphy said after further review, the state’s chief administrative judge could come back and determine the second courtroom is needed.

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