There may soon be a Central Municipal Court of Atlantic County, after an ordinance passed at the county commissioners’ meeting to make it part of county government.
It would be the first countywide municipal court system in the state, organized under a pilot program made possible by a special state law.
But Democratic Commissioner Ernest Coursey voted against it, and Republican Commissioner Richard Dase said he wants more information on what it will cost the county to renovate the historic court house in Mays Landing and fit it out for the consolidated court before the public hearing on the ordinance in two weeks.
State Sen.-elect Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, attended the meeting and said he has gotten many calls about it, and they have been “100% opposed.” He asked for more information on the idea, which is heavily supported by County Executive Dennis Levinson and a committee of current and retired judges, the court administrator and County Counsel Jim Ferguson.
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The ordinance would amend the county code to include the new shared services municipal court, which is expected to save participating towns about $1.4 million if 11 towns participated. So far, nine have signed on, Ferguson said.
The towns include Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township, Hamilton Township, Linwood, Northfield, Ventnor, Estell Manor, Weymouth Township and Port Republic.
A resolution also passed approving of the plan for the court, with an amendment indicating a member of the commissioner’s board will be added to an oversight board.
Dase, whose commissioner district includes Galloway Township, said he has gotten calls from newly elected municipal officials who have questions about the plan.
The plan was also opposed by the sheriff’s office PBA president, because security will be done by a private firm using retired, armed police officers rather than sheriff’s officers.
Ferguson said the sheriff’s office proposal would have cost $900,000, while the private firm is costing $393,000.
Ferguson said private security is used in other municipal courts, and the plan has been approved by the courts.
“If came in with something reasonable, we’d be happy to give the sheriff that work,” Ferguson said. “I’m not willing to sacrifice the idea and savings so that a group can have a plumb assignment.”
Both Atlantic County GOP Chairman Keith Davis and Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman issued a joint statement in September in support of the consolidation plan proposed by Levinson, a Republican, with the backing of Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Suleiman and Davis cited the need to improve the justice of the court system and save property tax dollars.
“We don’t agree on much, but on this issue of consolidating our municipal court system, we agree that it is needed and needed now,” the two said in a statement. “This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s about good government and saving money so municipalities can deliver on property tax relief and invest more in roads and infrastructure.”
Levinson said then it was “like ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ with Macy’s and Gimbels speaking to each other.”
Atlantic County’s plan is to hold the new court in the old courthouse on Main Street in Mays Landing.
Gilmore said Egg Harbor Township stands to save more than $450,000 a year and Galloway more than $235,000, based on the participation of 11 towns.
“When we get this done, we will demonstrate that Atlantic County is the place where Republicans and Democrats can work together to regionalize government for the betterment of all taxpayers,” Davis and Suleiman said.
Recently retired Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson has said a court system run by the county would be a better and fairer municipal court.
There are 15 municipal courts in the county, according to County Counsel Jim Ferguson. Most serve a single municipality.
“Some were great. Some OK, and some were horrendous,” Sandson said of his experience with the different municipal courts when he was an attorney.
He said that meant for someone facing an accusation, the justice received would at least in part depend on which court heard the case.
A bill to establish a pilot program to allow countywide municipal courts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties in South Jersey; and in Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties in North Jersey passed the Senate and Assembly (S3049/A5176) and was signed by the governor in August.
REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post 609-272-7219
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