On Wednesday, 10/20/21, Brigantine City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to join the new Countywide Municipal Court system. Political partisanship is not an issue here. Both parties support the program.
Every governing body has the duty to provide the most effective government at the lowest reasonable cost. In a State with some of our country’s highest property taxes and with 450 municipal courts for 565 municipalities consolidation is worthy of discussion and implementation.
This program will be operational on 1/1/22, with a 11/1/21 deadline for joining.
Eight of the County’s largest municipalities have signed on, with the ninth moving in that direction. If Council votes “no”, the next date for joining will be in 2023. When joining, a town makes a two- year commitment.
Such a discussion and answering of questions finally took place at the 10/6/21 Council meeting. It lasted 31/4 hours.
The County representatives were County Counsel James Ferguson and retired judge Mark Sandson of the NJ Superior Court. They were sincere, honest, thorough, credible and respectful of Council’s many questions and comments.
Let’s look at the facts of this agreement among a municipality, Atlantic County and the Administrative Office of the NJ Superior Court (AOC).
In Atlantic County every municipal court operates at a loss. Using figures provided by the City for years 2017,18, and 19 to determine an average annual cost to the City to operate its court, the County presented an annual savings of $181,673 for the City as a participant in the program.
The County, out of its capital budget, is responsible for renovations to an existing building, security and maintenance. The AOC is responsible for electronic equipment.
The cost to a municipality will be a pro-rated percentage based on the court cases and expenses, not on the town’s ratable base. Economies of scale will prevail – more towns, lower cost. The judges, appointments pending, are contracted employees, each serving 4-6 sessions weekly for a 3- year term. Recommendations go through a presiding Superior Court judge to the county executive to the governor.
The county’s interest in this shared services program is centered on saving taxpayers money and expanding and improving services- equal justice under the law. The judiciary has been an advocate for years for this type of program.
Participating municipalities will play an active role in the governance and personnel parts of the program.
Brigantine City Council asked many questions – police overtime, discovery papers, the kiosk for digitally disadvantaged people, risk – big vs. smaller towns, salaries, etc.. Mr. Ferguson and Judge Sandson addressed them all, stating that they don’t see anything so intractable as to be an impediment to Brigantine being a participant.
They emphasized that 85% of the court’s business will be done virtually, removing for instance, in-person appearances by the police freeing them for their primary duties, and that “technology is here to stay. Use it.”
Brigantine isn’t unique in terms of having to confront change. Some towns resist, holding on to total local control and the status quo. Others adapt and take advantage of opportunities that are offered.
This program appears to be such an opportunity.
Sincerely, Brigantine Taxpayers Association, Anne H. Phillips.