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Village of Lancaster trustee’s idea to end dual court system ignites debate

Trustee Russell W. Sugg thinks it’s time for the Village of Lancaster to abolish its court system.

Sugg is adamant that the village could save $40,000 to $60,000 a year by doing so and have Town Court serve both village and town judicial needs.

“We have a Village Court system. We have a Town Court system. My question is: Is there a need for two?” Sugg said. “Why do we have a redundant service? The redundancy is there.”

Sugg also says the village has lost about a quarter of a million dollars in the last five to six years in running its court system. “I’m trying to help the residents,” he said.

But others aren’t quick to accept his idea. At Monday night’s meeting, Sugg and Trustee Dawn M. Robinson sparred on the issue. It’s too early to know whether there would be a savings, Robinson said, and a cost-benefit analysis should be done. “It’s disingenuous to the people to put out numbers,” said Robinson, whose husband is a detective lieutenant and whose brother-in-law is a lieutenant, on the 49-officer Lancaster police force. “I think you’re focusing on one tree instead of the forest,” she said to Sugg. “This definitely needs to be a more thorough cost analysis.”

Villages and towns throughout the suburbs have grappled with how to balance cost and service of court systems in municipalities. In Lancaster’s case, about 41,000 village and town residents are served by one police force, which underwent a merger in 2003, and courts in both the town and the village. But in Hamburg, the village and town each run its own police force and separate courts for a combined population of about 57,000. In smaller Aurora/East Aurora, where about 14,000 residents live, there is a combined police force and just one court.

Mayor Paul M. Maute, typically reserved at government meetings, grew visibly annoyed with Sugg at Monday’s meeting. “You just can’t jump at this. I didn’t know we were in a hurry,” Maute told Sugg.

Many officials acknowledge that the number of tickets issued are down, leading to a significant drop-off in ticket revenue to the courts in the last few years.

“Not all mergers end up with the success they’re supposed to,” Robinson said. “Police are so busy, there’s not as much time to do radar,” she said, noting that there are more developments and more big-box stores to patrol as the town has grown.

Debate on the issue led Sugg to vote against the village’s $6.3 million budget that the board adopted for 2014-15. It also dominated most of the work session and regular business meeting Monday.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Police Chief Gerald J. Gill Jr. said that the ticket count may be down but that he was not immediately certain of the statistics. If it is, Gill said, it may be attributed to increased vehicle and traffic enforcement efforts in the village. “Our presence may have deterred vehicle and traffic violations,” he said.

Supervisor Dino J. Fudoli favors a serious look at merging court operations. For Town Court, two justices and four clerks serve, while Village Court consists of a justice, an acting justice and a clerk.

The board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday to further address the issue.