The police juvenile offices are being relegated to the City Hall basement to make room for expanding City Court operations, much to the chagrin of Police Chief Neil Merritt.
The expansion, to take place in March, will eventually be paid for by the state court system through reimbursements to the city for the conversion work, said Chief Court Clerk Cindy M. Russell.
Though he recognizes the courts are entitled to the space under state law, Merritt said he objects to children's having to find their way to the basement.
Russell said: "We are getting more cases. We have a staff of six court clerks. We are implementing Drug Treatment Court and other programs. We need an office for a drug court coordinator. We need chambers for the associate judge. We've never had one. My presiding judge is here seven days a week, and when my associate judge comes in, he has no office to conduct pretrial sessions or meet with attorneys before civil proceedings. So we have to expand."
The expansion will encompass the former juvenile office space and the former city corporation counsel's office, which was relocated next to the mayor's office last year, creating a court complex in one section of City Hall, Mayor Thomas C. Sullivan said.
The juvenile offices are to be located in a storeroom area adjacent to the police parking garage in the City Hall basement.
"That's unacceptable to me," Merritt said, noting that juvenile offices shouldn't resemble detention facilities. And youngsters should have "free and easy access" to them under state standards, he said.
"It's totally inappropriate for juvenile offices. We have troubled kids and abused children that should not be subjected to looking for offices in the police garage area when they need to talk to a police officer. The offices should be easily accessible. I'd much rather have them up here (on the first floor)," Merritt said.
"I need two offices for my juvenile detectives (David Barrancotta and Carla Benedict). There are a lot of sensitive things being discussed, like the sexual abuse of children. You can't have two officers discussing separate cases at the same time in one room," Merritt said.
At the moment, however, the basement seems to be the only answer. State law prohibits juvenile offices' occupying space that might bring youngsters into contact with criminal elements. That eliminates using space near other police operations, Merritt said.
"My suggestion is to add the new offices onto the east wall of the large lobby inside City Hall, near the front-door entrance and next to the parking lot," he said.
"I've talked to (State) Sen. George Maziarz about it. He's looking into it," Merritt said Wednesday.
Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, said Thursday that he is looking into the matter but has yet to come up with the money for constructing the new offices.
Sullivan said the city is investigating the situation.
"We are hoping (the basement offices) are only temporary. We are looking to make other space available, but that will take time," he said.
As for the proposed new first-floor offices, Sullivan said: "Chief Merritt has a good thought, but it's just a thought right now. We have to look at things like cost factors."
Depending on the requirements, Sullivan said it could cost as much as $200,000 or even $400,000 to construct new office space.