New Scotland Town Court goes to school in Clarksville

NEW SCOTLAND –– New Scotland defendants will be going to school this summer, as the town court prepares to rent space for proceedings at the recently abandoned Clarksville Elementary School.

As negotiations to lease the entire property to the Albany County Sheriff’s Office near an end, the town board has approved a non-binding agreement to rent space at the site for local court.

 The board voted unanimously March 21 to endorse a memorandum of understanding with the Sheriff, setting forth the town’s intention to rent space from the agency once it had signed a proposed lease agreement with the property’s landlord, the Bethlehem Central School District.

New Scotland Supervisor Thomas Dolin said the memorandum was because “the county wants some sign of good faith if they are successful,” referring to the sheriff and school district working out a deal.

Sheriff Craig Apple said a five-year lease could be finalized in April, and Dolin said he hopes the court may begin moving into the building by July.

In a split vote in March 2011, the Bethlehem Board of Education decided to close the school and bus its 200 elementary students to other schools in order to close a million dollar district budget gap.

The board made this decision against the recommendations of the superintendent at the time, Michael Tebbano. The school, in rural Clarksville, was the only school in the Bethlehem district in the Town of New Scotland. Facing community outcry over the closure Tebbano later pledged the district would retain the unused property and remain open to the possibility of one day restoring the school, if enrollment increased and finances improved.

The sheriff’s office first began looking into the prospect of using the building in October 2011 after it was determined the school would be unable to occupy the property for the next several years at least, said Apple.

“Instead of a vacant building with tumbleweeds blowing past it, we want the kids to come and use the playground,” said Apple. “I’ll be first to admit, we were flush for a long time but now we’re not,” said the sheriff in reference to recent budget cuts across state services.

Though current Superintendent Thomas Douglas was unavailable for comment, district spokesman Bill Devoe said the district was still interested in revitalizing the Clarksville school, some day.

“You always hope it’ll one day open as a school. If the student population comes back you always want to keep that door open,” said Devoe.

Devoe said the district “would realize about $355,000 over the whole life of the lease,” by collecting rent and not having to pay utilities for the building’s empty 35,000-square feet. The district is looking at collecting a proposed $2,500 a month from the county for the first year, with increasing increments in the following years, said Devoe. By the fifth year, Devoe said, the monthly rent would be about $4,500.

Dolin said the town is looking at paying the sheriff’s $1,000 a month for five years to rent the court space.

New Scotland has two justices who typically convene court every Thursday between 4 and 7 p.m. In addition, the town employs two clerks and pays a sheriff’s deputy to act as a court constable during proceedings.

Justice David J. Wukitsch reported the court disposed of 763 cases in 2011, collecting $73,723 from fines, surcharges, and fees. The justice noted 671 of those cases involved violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law.

During the proceedings, the court currently hears cases in the town hall boardroom. Dolin, a former town judge, said there’s scarcely any space available during court, which can involve attorney conferences, private client-attorney discussions, holding and transporting prisoners, or occasionally seating a jury. During trials the town would place chairs in a kitchen area and have the jury deliberate there.

“Kitchen is generous. It’s not a kitchen, it’s the copy room/kitchenette,” said Dolin. “We really don’t have adequate space to accommodate all parties involved.”

Dolin also said the town was under pressure to improve court security ever since an assessment by the state Unified Court System in February 2009 highlighted a number of issues not meeting current safety guidelines.

“They found the facility was in need of substantial upgrading from a security standpoint,” he said.

Some of the assessments’ concerns involved space problems, such as keeping court officials, inmates and the public in areas designated specifically for them. Currently officials and the public shared, “closer quarters than the UFC would like,” said Dolin of the Unified Court System.

The assessment also noted a lack of control in public access. Dolin explained the layout of the town hall and placement of the doors make it difficult for police to secure or contain a possible situation.

“It was built to be a town hall, not a courthouse,” said Dolin. “These issues we’re seeing in the assessment are nothing new to many rural towns.”

Dolin said the board had reviewed options to improve security and had taken all the steps it could without having to make huge investments. He estimated that, in order to become fully compliant with the court system’s recommendations, the town would need to build an extension onto the current building. He estimated the cost of building a new wing at around $140,000.

“Primarily we’re going to have to spend substantial money on security to keep them here,” said Dolin of court operations.

The proposed cost of relocating the court to Clarksville he estimated in the thousands of dollars but noted a pending $25,000 grant from the New York Office of Court Administration could potentially pay for the move.

Dolin said the new courtroom would be in the school’s auditorium. The school building would be used by the sheriff’s office, complete with its own security system and a number of law-enforcement officers would be on the property.

Apple said a significant law enforcement operation would move into the site including patrol and criminal investigations units, Stop DWI, emergency management operations, drug coordinators and more. The building’s electronic infrastructure is in good shape, Apple said. He wants to consolidate a number of police functions under one roof in order to be more efficient.

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