By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
Atlantic County’s plans for a countywide municipal court system to save taxpayers an average of 30-40% in annual court costs recently received another boost with the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee’s unanimous support of required legislation and the decision by the NJ Superior Court to continue remote court proceedings for the foreseeable future.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said in a release that this news would put to rest any lingering concerns of municipal officials who feared that without state legislative approval, the countywide municipal court system would not be in place by January 2022.
“Senate President Steve Sweeney has been an enthusiastic supporter from the beginning and kept his word by introducing the legislation needed to create regional consolidated court systems,” Levinson said. “We anticipate having the full approval of the state Legislature in the next few weeks.”
Another concern raised by some of the municipal police chiefs was the added time and expense of travel to Mays Landing where the county’s historic court house is located. The county offered the use of the facility for the centralized, consolidated court.
“Officers have to travel to Mays Landing now for criminal court cases and to Atlantic City for civil cases so I don’t see that as an issue,” Levinson explained. “And with the recent court notice that all but the most serious cases will continue to be handled remotely, those concerns are negligible.”
County officials acknowledge that a bigger concern for some municipal officials is the loss of control and home rule. Although towns would no longer have the ability to appoint their own prosecutor and judge, they would gain substantial cost savings.
Levinson pointed to a financial comparison based on a pre-pandemic, three-year average of municipal court costs that were supplied by the towns. The more towns that participate in a countywide system, the greater the savings.
“The facts speak for themselves.”
Based on just 11 of 23 towns participating, the maximum savings with a consolidated court system would be more than 73% a year. The annual cumulative savings would be nearly $1.4 million.
“It’s hard to argue with these facts and figures, but again, the choice is theirs. We are merely offering the opportunity to reduce duplication and realize cost savings,” he said.
The NJ Department of Community Affairs awarded Atlantic County a $150,000 Local Efficiency Achievement Program Challenge Grant to investigate the feasibility of a countywide municipal court system.
Each interested town must pass a resolution authorizing its participation in the countywide municipal court beginning January 2022.
In the Downbeach area, Ventnor has passed a resolution to join the system with a projected savings of 53%.
“It’s a no brainer for all municipalities,” Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman said. “There will be a cost savings for local taxpayers, and having one court would offer consistency in dealing with residents.”
Longport and Margate recently passed ordinances to share their municipal courts at a cost savings and hold court sessions at Margate’s Historic City Hall on Washington and Ventnor avenues.
Commissioner of Public Safety John Amodeo called the agreement a “win-win” and a “perfect fit” for the two towns.
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