Shared Court Services Proposal Rejected
Bridgewater's governing body cites concerns about risk, extra security costs.
Mayor Dan Hayes said the proposal is a dead deal after the council voted 3-2 Monday against a resolution to create a shared court service between Bridgewater and Somerville.
"I am extremely disappointed that the council chose not to advance the interests of the township in voting down the shared court proposal," he said after the meeting. "It would have saved Bridgewater and Somerville at least $73,000 per year, as well as given us the experience to increase the value of shared services in the future."
The shared service was presented by Hayes at a recent meeting, for Bridgewater and Somerville to both hold court in the municipal building on Commons Way.
"The concept is to operate a shared court, but both municipalities will remain separate court entities," he said. "The opportunity is to share facilities and personnel, and increase the utilization of resources, primarily the grounds in Bridgewater."
Hayes said there is the expectation of $73,000 in savings annually to the taxpayers, broken down to $26,000 in savings for Somerville and $47,000 for Bridgewater.
The two would have been operating a shared court, with each managing their own systems with their own judges, prosecutors and other court personnel. But all the court work would be done in the Bridgewater municipal complex.
"There is no reduction in services, and to Bridgewater it is transparent because court operations remain the same," Hayes said. "It is a 9 percent annual reduction in court expenses and the utilization of an under-utilized facility."
The agreement was written as a three-year agreement, but the council could evaluate it every year, and there was a 90-day termination period written into the resolution.
But council members expressed concerns about some of the facts and figures presented by the resolution, as well as information that they believed was lacking from the proposal.
For councilman Howard Norgalis, he was wondering why he hadn't been able to see an audit of 2012 expenses to determine that the numbers presented by the administration, and used to design the shared service, were accurate.
"It wasn't too many months ago that the issue of police consolidation was very briefly reviewed here," he said. "That issue, which had a massive potential amount of savings, went down the tube."
"I would support tabling this to see the security," he added. "The fact that the audit I have is from a year ago, I would imagine there would want to be another report."
Hayes said he doesn't believe another audit is warranted when the administration and Bridgewater municipal court judge William Kelleher were saying they had reviewed the facts and figures.
"I believe a request for court audits when we have the judge saying the audits are clear is essentially a delay that is unwarranted," Hayes said.
Councilman Filipe Pedroso said he does believe the idea of shared services is important in any community, but that the risk in this one may not be worth the reward. He said he sees in the proposal that the township will be saving $36,000 in rental income because of the money Somerville will pay to use the building, but the remaining $11,000 in savings is more ambiguous.
"Since this is listed as a line item expense, I must presume that if it is allocated as an expense, the money will probably be spent," he said. "Is $36,000 in revenue enough to justify an agreement?"
Basically, Pedroso said, the revenue coming in through the shared service would represent a potential of 0.18 percent in tax savings for residents, or $1.80 per homeowner.
"Because it is argued that Bridgewater is saving some money, that it not enough by itself to justify a deal," he said. "A deal has to be a good deal, and ultimately our role as elected officials is to determine if the deal is good for Bridgewater."
"My concern is that by signing into the deal, we will be making a little bit of money, but is a little enough?" he added.
Pedroso said he is also concerned that more use of the building will increase Bridgewater's liability, while also increasing the wear and tear on the building, and the need for repairs.
But Hayes said he doesn't think that justifies voting against the proposal.
"Simply wishing the numbers are better doesn't work," he said. "These are well thought out based on data. It is something we've been asked to look at, something we've looked at throughout the county. It's whether you think 9 percent cost reductions have no downside."
"The design of our government is not to turn a profit, it is to reduce expenses," he added. "The $47,000 is just that."
Councilman Matthew Moench had similar concerns about Bridgewater taking all the risks and possibly missing out on some of the benefits.
"I can't believe there aren't other overhead costs that haven't been considered," he said.
But the major issue Moench was concerned about was the costs of court security, namely using police officers during court hours.
"I think it warrants a much closer look at now because if we tackle the problem of court security, and there are additional savings, then we just have a bigger buffer," he said. "If we have underestimated, we don't."
Moench said he supports the idea of the shared service, just not the resolution in its current form. Particularly with court security, he said he believes there could be some additional considerations or possibly some security that could be handled by Somerville to avoid Bridgewater having to handle those costs.
Kelleher said Somerville is currently holding court sessions in Raritan, and, with a room smaller than the Bridgewater municipal building, there are 36 sessions with a seating capacity of 64. In Bridgewater, he said, there would only be 24 sessions, with a seating capacity of 130.
"There are less sessions and more people, that's where the numbers come from," he said.
Norgalis said he wondered why Somerville officers couldn't come to Bridgewater for court sessions.
"If Somerville can go into Raritan and have police there, why can't they come here?" he asked. "Then we would incur no additional Bridgewater police security."
Moench said he believes the amount of security needed could end up being more than the projections currently, and he is concerned that more money will have to be spent.
"This is an issue where we have struggled for keeping our costs down, and it's an area where we could still be lower," he said.
Moench also questioned whether they could follow a model like Hillsborough and Montgomery, having a shared judge, prosecutor and public defender for additional savings.
"Here we have the same judge and different prosecutors," said township administrator James Naples. "There is nothing that says we can't name the same ones between the two."
Moench, Pedroso and Norgalis voted against the resolution, while council president Allen Kurdyla and councilwoman Christine Henderson Rose voted for it, saying they would like to take a chance, knowing they can back out in 90 days, and understanding that there are cost savings.
"I see this as an opportunity for us to be creative," Rose said. "We are not locked in beyond one year, and I believe the mayor has set measurable outcomes to achieve to determine if this is a successful pilot program."
"I think we have obligations to taxpayers in both municipalities to at least explore it and try it," she added.
Kurdyla agreed, saying that if they see the program is not working, they could always abandon it.
"I'm of the thought to at least give it a year," he said. "I see the benefit going to Bridgewater Township and for our neighbors in Somerville."
But with concerns about liability, needs for additional court security and more, the proposal was voted down.
"Based on their comments here, there is no interest in this type of activity," Hayes said after the meeting. "The costs are based on a lot of our experience, and the administration's opinion was there was considerably more upside than downside, and the agreement could have been cancelled at any time if it was a disappointment."
"A lot of work went into it, and the judge who runs both courts, our financial workers, they all support it," he added. "All our experts support it, so I remain surprised that the council would discount those opinions so greatly as to put down their measure."