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To avoid costly courtroom, Watertown reduces judge positions

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For years now, Watertown leaders have been wrestling with how the city can afford a state-mandated second city courtroom, a problem they say originated in Albany. Now, the issue no longer exists thanks to a fix that also came from Albany.

In 2013, New York state increased the number of city court judges in Watertown from one full-time position and one part-time to two full-time judges. Former Watertown City Councilor Mark Walczyk said they never asked for that change nor the bill that came along with it.

"What the state didn’t tell the city was that would require them to build a $3 million courtroom for that upgrade of a judge," Walczyk said. 

So, Walcyzyk, now the assemblyman who represents Watertown, authored a bill to reduce the number of judges in the city court back down to one full time and one part-time position, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law this week. The amount of cases the judges handle won't decrease, but Walczyk says this is a more equitable way to pay for them.

"We think from everything we’ve seen from the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Office of Court Administration that 1.5 judges is the appropriate staffing level to be able to manage Watertown City Court," Walczyk said. "They probably will have additional time to help out some of the other courts and if the court is going to be serving Jefferson County or a larger area than that, then you have to go to the next layer of government for which taxpayers are going to pay for it. It doesn’t make sense for the city of Watertown solely to pay for court space that’s going to be used regionally."

Watertown Mayor Jeff Smith, who stopped the city from moving forward on the construction of the courtroom when he took office in early 2019, praised the news as an innovative solution to a problem that has plagued the city for years. 

"When I ran for mayor, one of the biggest pledges I made was to do everything in my power to stand up for taxpayers and fight back against a multimillion dollar, state-mandated, second city courtroom," Smith said in a press release. "This issue—and its high cost—was discussed by mayors before me, but no one had yet raised the possibility of calling on our state legislators to introduce 'home rule' legislation and relieve us of this burden."

Smith said this was also a major victory given Watertown, like local governments across the state, are struggling to make ends meet in the middle of a pandemic.

Neither of Watertown's two full-time judges nor the district administrative judge who oversees Watertown returned a request for comment.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.