• Joseph F. Berenato

Town prefers local, not county, court

A look at the proposed idea


Mayor Stephen DiDonato—who participated in initial discussions about the system—noted that the addition of travel for a court case can present unnecessary hardships for Hammonton residents—and is a major factor in Hammonton’s decision not to join the countywide joint municipal court. (THG/Kristin Guglietti. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—In November of 2020, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson proposed the implementation of a countywide joint municipal court. Speaking with The Gazette, Levinson said that the proposed system is a way for municipalities to save money when “the cost of government in the state of New Jersey is spiraling upward.”


“We have a governor that’s spending; it is certainly not a conservative or a frugal administration. It’s a question of the highest-taxed state in the country, and here is a way for municipalities to save money in their court costs,” Levinson said.


New Jersey has 565 municipalities, which, Levinson said, is “more municipalities than Virginia, Delaware and Maryland put together.”


“There is a continual duplication of services. As far as I’m concerned, I am, as county executive, giving the towns an opportunity to decide whether they wish to go into a county-wide court system,” Levinson said.


Atlantic County Counsel James Ferguson explained further.


“This could be a way that municipalities could realize a significant savings in their municipal budgets, because all of the municipalities, based on figures that we’ve seen that have been put together by the court system that monitors the municipal courts, indicate that every municipal court, even those in joint court arrangements, are losing money, some significantly so with the cost of these,” Ferguson said.


With a regional court in a centralized location, Ferguson said that municipalities could realize “substantial savings.”


“By substantial savings, I would say that, for most municipalities that would join this, you’d be talking about savings in the range of 35 to 40 percent,” Ferguson said.


Ferguson said that the figures to support those numbers were calculated by court officials in the municipal division.


“These figures were obtained directly from the municipalities—either from their municipal budget, their audits or from other information that was provided as a result of an OPRA [Open Public Records Act] request that my office filed,” Ferguson said.


Ferguson also provided the projected numbers for Hammonton.


“Under one of the scenarios, Hammonton—and we did a three-year cost average, and that covered the years 2017, 2018 and 2019; the reason we didn’t include 2020 was because that was the COVID year, and that would be an outlier—Hammonton, based on the figures, the three-year cost just to Hammonton for its court process was $247,572. Under this scenario, Hammonton’s contribution to a county court would be a little over $145,000, so you’d have a savings of $102,250; a 41.3 percent savings,” Ferguson said.


Ferguson said that figures were also calculated for the other municipalities that are a part of Hammonton’s joint municipal court: Folsom, Buena Vista Twp. and Egg Harbor City.


“We believe that, under our scenario, those municipalities would pay less by being involved in the county system than even being hooked up with Hammonton. Don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way; we’re not being critical of Hammonton. We believe that Hammonton, through the years, from all the information that I’ve been party to, has run a pretty effective court. We’re not being critical, it’s just that we believe that we can effectuate a better product, and a product that will save everybody more money. They’re not saving money now, because all of these municipal courts are operating in the red if all of their costs are included, including their personnel costs, the costs of benefits they pay their full-time personnel, and so on,” Ferguson said.


Participation in the countywide joint municipal court, Ferguson said, would involve payment from municipalities based on the percentage of court services utilized.


“The figures indicate that Hammonton had roughly 6.6 percent of the total number of municipal court cases in the county of the participating municipalities. Once a budget would be struck, Hammonton would be allocated a 6.6 percent share of that, and then they would be billed that amount. Any of the revenues that you guys collected would be applied against that, and then any excess revenue you guys would keep. Just as an example, if your court share was $145,000 and your average was revenue from the year before was, say, $200,000, $145,000 would be allocated against next year’s budget allotment for Hammonton, and then Hammonton would get to keep the excess; it would be surplus to them,” Ferguson said.


Ferguson said that, under the proposed system, the court would be under county control but would have two committees—one for personnel and one for governance—that would each have five representatives from the municipalities that would participate in the program.


“Those would be provided geographically, with a representative from the shore communities, two representatives from the mainland communities, a representative from the western end municipalities then a representative from either Hamilton, Egg Harbor Twp. or Galloway—those being what I refer to as the largest municipalities,” Ferguson said.


Ferguson said that the governance committee would work with court officials and the county, and “engage in discussions on a quarterly basis to update the other municipalities on how the court is functioning.”


“Their principle task would be to formulate the budget. The committee would meet in the last quarter of each year and would formulate the budget for the ensuing calendar year,” Ferguson said.


The personnel committee would meet with court officials to “determine the number of employees that would be needed.”


“That would include the number of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and the court staff. That will be largely dependent on how many municipalities participate. If you’re going to have 10 municipalities in, you might only need two judges. If you have 15 municipalities that join, you’re probably going to need a third judge,” Ferguson said.


Ferguson said this system would be in place to make the operation of the court a more democratic one.


“Although this would be under county control, we want the municipalities to have a real stake in the process, so they won’t feel that this was being dictated from the top down but that the various municipal representatives on the two committees would come and have real input into how this court operates,” Ferguson said.


As the system is proposed, the main court would be housed in Mays Landing—with renovations to the courthouse being paid for by Atlantic County.


“The county is prepared to make these capital improvements to the court facilities; that’ll be the county’s contribution to this shared service agreement. The county will pay for capital improvements, including the cost of security equipment and so on, and we’re in the process of consultation right now with the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office to provide court security,” Ferguson said.


In lieu of local municipal courts, kiosks would be installed in each participating municipality’s justice facility.


“The AOC [Administrative Office of the Courts]—would agree, as part of their contribution to this, to set up kiosks in the various municipal buildings, so that if someone had a case, and they don’t have internet access on their own, they could come to the municipal building, to the kiosks, have instructions there, go online, and have their case heard without ever having to travel to Mays Landing ... That’s something that the AOC would be footing the bill for,” Ferguson said.


Levinson said that, for the majority of individuals, most cases could be handled at the kiosks without necessitating travel to Mays Landing.


“We’re not talking about murders, and rapes, and mayhem; we’re talking about municipal court, which mostly are made up of fines, traffic violations. It’s already done, in many cases, remotely,” Levinson said.


Ferguson expanded on the topic.


“Since the COVID pandemic hit, 80 to 85 percent of the court proceedings are done virtually, and that’s expected to continue even after the pandemic is over. The only cases where police officers or law enforcement people would have to travel to Mays Landing would be cases where the person would be subject to penal consequences, like a drunk driving offense or a criminal offense that’s downgraded by the county prosecutor, where the person could go to jail. In those cases, the officers would have to travel to Mays Landing, but that would be a very, very small minority of the cases. The overwhelming majority of the cases would be handled virtually,” Ferguson said.


For those who would have to travel, Levinson said that Mays Landing, as the county seat, is the logical choice, and is “not that far for an individual to go to court.”


“You have to go to Superior Court in Mays Landing, and if you wanted to go to civil court, you’d have to drive all the way from Hammonton to Atlantic City ... We do have two court houses there—one for civil court and one for criminal court,” Levinson said.


However, Mayor Stephen DiDonato—who participated in initial discussions about the system—noted that the addition of travel for a court case can present unnecessary hardships for Hammonton residents—and is a major factor in Hammonton’s decision not to join the countywide joint municipal court.


“Our residents that use those services, that go to court, we try to keep it closer to them and more convenient. It’s convenience, honestly. That’s the reason. I think the county is going to do a good job about it, but, just the fact to have the convenience, if, God forbid, someone were to get a ticket for whatever reason, to discuss it with the court they’d have to travel 20, 25 minutes,” DiDonato said.


Hammonton is not alone in their disinterest.


“We have interest from approximately 10 municipalities ... We had interest, originally, of one degree or another, where at least people got on calls and engaged in discussion from 17 municipalities. Over time, some have indicated they want to stay where they are, or are just not interested in coming in—like Atlantic City, which we figured at this point, and a couple of the downbeach communities like Margate and Longport,” Ferguson said.


Levinson concurred.


“There are towns that are enthusiastic about it—namely, Egg Harbor Twp. They will save anywhere between $300,000 and $400,000 a year on their court. Another case in point: Atlantic City. They are not interested, and they have made it extremely clear: if it happens, count us out. Other towns are in a wait/see situation. Others are very skeptical,” Levinson said.


Michael Malinsky, the solicitor for the town of Hammonton, explained that skepticism.


“I think there are too many unknowns with the county court system that will affect those municipalities that decide to join,” Malinsky said.


DiDonato agreed with Malinsky.


“There are some unknowns with the county. It looks like, initially, there is a cost savings, but that’s a concern also, when you start a court like that and you start ramping up. If costs that are projected, if they don’t hit their mark—the county does a nice job, but if they don’t hit their mark and they have to go around and raise rates to municipalities? We’d like to sit back and see how they do, and what the costs are. Once you’re in it, you have to get the approval—unless they’ve changed it recently—you have to get the approval of all the municipalities that were in the system to let you out. That was what was proposed initially,” DiDonato said.


One potential downside of the countywide municipal court system, Levinson said, is the perceived lack of sovereignty.


“The other side of that coin is that the municipalities are relinquishing home rule in their court system, just like they relinquished their home rule in the countywide health system and the countywide library system and the countywide welfare system. Those are three areas where municipalities had given up their sovereignty to the county. All we’re saying right now is, here is another opportunity for you to save money, and we can show you on paper that the saving is substantial,” Levinson said.


However, Hammonton Police Chief Kevin Friel—who, along with Northfield Police Chief Paul Newman, represented a subcommittee for the Atlantic County Chief of Police Association regarding the formation of the court—said that further evidence was needed.


“Sometimes, having everything consolidated in one area may look good on paper, and may sound like a financial savings, but, in the long run, doesn’t always work out to what it’s planned to be,” Friel said.


Friel said that, by having a municipal court in Hammonton, there is “a direct interaction with that link of the whole justice system.”


“We’re charged with the responsibility of insuring that people follow an ordinance and then bring them before the judicial branch which would be our municipal court judge, in resolving any matters as defined whether there’s culpability or no culpability in charging someone with a local ordinance or a state statute if it’s a non-indictable offense. By having a regionalized, county municipal court, it would then levy down to one full-time county municipal court judge and probably three or four part-time municipal county court judges ... It then again takes away the local community flavor to courts. It’s someone from our community going to an unknown place, and it’s a different judge—it’s not our local judge,” Friel said.


Levinson conceded the point.


“Money isn’t everything, and I know that more than anybody. If the municipalities wish to spend more to have home rule, to be able to appoint their own judge, to enable them to appoint their own prosecutor, they’re going to have to pay more for it. That’s all. It’s as simple as that,” Levinson said.


Malinsky said that the desire to retain control was part of the reasoning behind the formation of Hammonton’s joint municipal court.


“I believe the mayor and town council foresaw something coming with regard to the municipal court system and wanted to make sure the town was in the best position possible to control its own destiny. To my knowledge the Hammonton joint municipal court is working out well,” Malinsky said.


Additionally, DiDonato said, the existence of Hammonton’s joint municipal court eliminates much of the financial allure provided by the countywide system.


“When we first started, we were trying to offset some of our costs. We had some municipalities—Folsom was the first one; they were smaller, and they were losing a lot of money. They came to us, and said, hey, you want to do something with shared services? At first, we were unsure, but it worked out very well. We did a pilot, and it worked out very well for both us and Folsom. Then we tried it with a few more, and it seems to be working well at this time ... We have some other municipalities sharing in the costs; our court system at this time is a profit center for the town of Hammonton. It’s not a tremendous profit center, but it’s not losing money like some, either,” DiDonato said.


Friel echoed DiDonato’s sentiments.


“The concept of regionalizing things does reduce costs of items, but we’ve already taken a proactive measure in that by having four courts in municipal court now. We were just Hammonton Municipal Court; we wound up with Folsom, then we wound up with Egg Harbor City’s court, and now we have Buena Vista’s court. We have four courts that we manage, which therefore cuts a cost savings to those other municipalities and to ours ... Presently, it would be more financially responsible for our community to maintain our regional municipal court that we have as our Hammonton Joint Municipal Court than to join a county consolidation of courts,” Friel said.


The entire proposal, Levinson said, is also entirely dependent on legislation which has yet to be signed into law.


“As it stands right now, we don’t have the legislation in place to allow us to do it in Trenton. If the state legislature decides this is a bad idea and don’t go for it—the Senate Judiciary Committee was not unanimous; you had ‘no’ votes and you had abstentions,” Levinson said.

Ferguson said that state Senator Stephen M. Sweeney (D-3) initially proposed legislation in October of 2020 to “create a pilot project in at least five counties throughout the state that would have what he called a ‘regional municipal court.’”


“In its original version, that did not provide for county control over a court. We contacted him and proposed amendments, which he was in agreement with. Those amendments were put into the legislation, including the recent amendment that would allow this court to be up and operational by January 1, 2022. That legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on first reading last Thursday, and is scheduled for second reading sometime next month, and the companion bill is going to be moving through the Assembly Judiciary Committee in the next week or two. We’re very hopeful that that legislation will pass,” Ferguson said.


In any event, Ferguson said that agreements were sent to the mayors of each municipality during the week of May 10, along with “a draft resolution and a PowerPoint presentation that was put together by the court, which outlines the basic workings of the program and the benefits that this system, we believe, would bring about.”


“The municipal officials have been asked to take action on that, and approve the resolution and get back to me by not later than June 18. At that point, we’ll know who’s in, who’s not in, and these committees can start getting formed, and we can start doing what we need to do to make the staffing decisions that are going to be necessary, and so on,” Ferguson said.


DiDonato said that, after being received, the matter falls under the purview of the Administration Committee, made up of DiDonato and Councilmen Thomas Gribbin and William Olivo.


“The Administration Committee will have to decide, and ultimately bring it to the council level, or say, let’s just hold pat for a little longer and see what happens,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that the town is opting for the latter.


“I wish the county nothing but success and luck, and I hope it works out for all those involved. I really do. It’s just that, at this time, I think we have something that’s working for Hammonton and our neighboring communities, and we’d like to just hold pat, wait and see. If those costs are accurate, maybe in a year, 18 months or two years down the road, we’ll consider something different, if we lose a few municipalities and the costs are fixed. But, at this time, we’d like to stay where we’re at. We think we’re in a good position, and very well-placed for the future,” DiDonato said.