Column: The sky isn’t falling at Howell Avenue

(Credit: Tim Gannon)
(Credit: Tim Gannon)

For readers out there who aren’t big town hall buffs, our government reporter, Tim Gannon, does a bang-up job each week reporting live from public Town Board meetings. In a media cycle that calls for fast, reliable information, his live blogs — with quotes, photos and meeting details along with his built-in perspective from 18 years covering the town — offer a great glimpse into the inner workings of our local government, if that’s your thing. Of course, since I’m an editor it’s my job to follow the news out of our local schools, governments and business communities

But I’m also a bit of a town hall buff myself.

So I was in the office last Thursday and happened to check in on Gannon’s live blog on our website. Town Board members were speaking about the topic of last week’s cover story: what to do with the justice court, and the pros and cons of a $13 million plan to move it to the vacant armory building on Route 58.

This issue has been kicked around on Howell Avenue for well over a decade, with town justices Allen Smith and Richard Ehlers saying the court’s cramped quarters continue to get even tighter as the town’s population continues to grow. In recent months, the Town Board has revisited the issue.

Scrolling through Gannon’s live blog of the discussion, however, I was a little surprised to find out that the justice court could literally be a death trap! In all the recent discussions and interviews on this topic, local media has apparently failed to pick up on the fact that the justice court needs replacing so badly that someone might die if the town doesn’t take action.

That’s according to town Supervisor Sean Walter, at least.

“It scares the heck out of me to make this decision to authorize some $13 million to do this,” he said at the May 1 meeting. “But do you know what scares the heck out of me even worse? Attending somebody’s funeral or visiting someone in the hospital because they got hurt in justice court.”

From what I understand, everybody at the meeting was in favor of getting more space for the justice court, one way or another. It’s old. It’s small. More people are using it than ever. Those using the court — not to mention the police department that shares the building — all deserve better.

But implying that someone will die if the board doesn’t act soon? Can someone say, “Chicken Little”? There’s no evidence to support the contention that anyone is in imminent danger at the court. And if there were, perhaps the town should be calling for an immediate evacuation of the premises — not finding a place for it to open a few years from now.

A majority of the board deflected the supervisor’s comment, deciding to follow reason and at least explore a more cost effective way to remedy the situation. Good. Because the town is, in fact, currently operating at a $4 million structural deficit. So while a $13 million facility for a new justice court sounds great, the town has an obligation to see what options are really best for taxpayers and those using the justice court.

It is good at least to hear that $13 million in bonds is scary enough to consider other options for the justice court.

What hasn’t been heard, however, is any discussion of how to reduce demand for the courts. I know lots of court cases in expensive new courthouses might be nice for lawyers and judges, but what does the town hope to do to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place? What new ideas do town leaders have on that front? Maybe such a big court wouldn’t be needed if we reduced demand over time.

It was gratifying to see at least one such idea — using the armory as a recreation center — among several others floated at last week’s meeting.

Guess we’ll see which idea ends up winning the day. Until then, keep your eyes to the sky.

Pinciaro_Joe.jpgJoseph Pinciaro is managing editor of Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 238. or [email protected]