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Supervisor pitches plan to convert current Town Hall into new justice court

The Town Hall annex building may not become the new Justice Court after all.

Town officials are reconsidering the proposal to convert the former bank building into a court complex.

“We really have to evaluate what the better option is based on practicality, based on expenses and based on long term vision,” Supervisor Scott Russell announced at a work session Tuesday.

In 2018, the town purchased the former Capital One building at the corner of Main Road and Youngs Avenue for $3.1 million with the intent of converting it into a new Justice Court. That building is currently used to house the town’s planning, building, accounting and personnel departments.

Mr. Russell said the current COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the difficulties associated with having the town’s departments split into two buildings. 

“It’s been a challenge for us,” he said.

Instead, he’s asked the board to consider relocating more departments, including his office, to the annex while converting the current Town Hall building into the new court.

While the pandemic will not be around forever, the supervisor said the annex building offers more flexibility for things that could be needed in the future, like a security desk at the entrance, and has usable basement space in case further expansion is ever needed for offices.

He said it would still address the board’s priority of separating the Justice Court from other functions of government while creating a permanent space for court staff.

The Justice Court offices are currently located in a trailer attached to Town Hall, where the main public meeting room doubles as a courtroom.

In 1977, the town moved its Justice Court proceedings to Town Hall, and added the current modular extension that houses the court staff that was supposed to be temporary, but more than 40 years later they remain in the modular structure.

According to town engineer Michael Collins, moving town government departments to the annex would require splitting a rear portion of the building into a two-story level, which would provide more than enough space for offices.

It would also allow the bank’s vault to be preserved. It’s currently in the way of the proposed courtroom and would need to be bridged with a steel beam since it’s a structural part of the building, Mr. Collins said.

“If we don’t have to demolish the vault, we can work around it, either incorporating it into the design or cutting holes through it and walling around it,” he said.

While the current Town Hall building would need upgrades to be used solely for the Justice Court, Mr. Collins said it would be “inherently easier” to delineate secure areas of the court as well as integrating other safety measures since it’s one level with separate entrances already.

The idea was met with wide support from Town Board members who say it makes more logistical sense.

“We tried to shoehorn this court in and it just doesn’t work in that building,” Councilman Jim Dinizio said. “The court has so much criteria on where the prisoners can enter, where the public can enter, where the jury can enter. Their paths are not supposed to cross.”

According to Mr. Russell, the public meeting room and courtroom at Town Hall could still be an option for evening meetings and work sessions could easily be held at the Peconic Lane Community Center. 

The supervisor also said the board should eventually begin discussing ideas for a new police headquarters. “We’ve got to retire some debt first but we really need to talk about it,” he said. “We’ve been kicking that can down the road for years.”

Cost estimates for the project were not immediately available since Mr. Collins needs to work on a more tangible plan for Town Hall, though board members said it would be a worthwhile investment. “If we’re going to be spending the money, I think this is definitely a better plan overall for our future,” said deputy supervisor Jill Doherty.

The board had previously authorized a $5.5 million bond in 2018 that was used to purchase the annex building and complete repairs, like a new roof. 

Mr. Collins said the roof replacement cannot be completed until changes to the overall floor plan and design are formalized.