HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Atlantic County’s plan to establish a countywide municipal court system took a giant leap forward when the Township Committee unanimously voted to become the eighth municipality to join at its meeting Monday.
It appears to be the linchpin in a county plan to create a combined municipal court, which could be in operation by next year.
Interim township Administrator Peter Miller cited huge cost savings as the advantage for municipalities to join.
“The township will be eliminating about $300,000 in costs to run the court,” he said. “It will cost about $439,000 to join the court, but we can expect more than $600,000 in revenue. That amounts to nearly a half-million-dollar annual gain.”
Miller also alleviated concerns about township court employees losing their jobs.
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“The county court will likely be hiring 20 to 22 employees,” he said. “Since our court is one of the most efficient and busiest, our employees will have a real advantage in the hiring process, and at a comparable salary.”
Mayor Charles Cain was a skeptic turned advocate.
“This was not a decision I took lightly,” he said. “I was a hard no at the beginning. Then, we collected all the necessary information and sent it to our auditor for review. The results came back very positive.”
Responding to a concern from Deputy Mayor Carl Pitale, Miller said that if not satisfied with the arrangement, the township can opt out after two years by giving six months’ notice.
Miller added that discussions have been held to possibly have the township Police Department provide security at the county courthouse on Main Street in Mays Landing, which will house the countywide municipal court. A decision on that will come later.
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According to Miller, about 75% of the cases will take place virtually.
“Only cases such as DUIs and assaults will take place in person,” he said. “Running the court virtually during the pandemic has been very successful. It eliminates the ‘cattle call’ when court opens, and people are instead assigned a time for their case. People don’t have to spend hours sitting in the courtroom.”
County Counsel James Ferguson has led the county’s effort to establish the court along with former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson.
“It is huge having the three largest townships in the county on board,” Ferguson said. “They will likely comprise about 75% of the cases.
“We now have eight municipalities included in the system. In addition to Egg Harbor, Galloway and Hamilton townships, Estell Manor, Weymouth Township, Linwood, Northfield and Ventnor have agreed to participate. We are still reaching out to the other communities.”
With Hamilton on board, the proposal will likely move forward, county Executive Dennis Levinson said Friday, before the Township Committee’s decision.
“The way things are going, we’re going to move forward on this,” Levinson said. “Hamilton Township is on the cusp. Once they come in, it would probably be worthwhile.”
County officials had said at least eight communities needed to come on board for the proposal to work. But Levinson said that number was a little misleading. If the eight smallest municipalities in the county approved joining the system, the numbers would not have worked.
Levinson has projected annual savings in excess of $1 million by combining municipal court services in a single operation. He said some towns, including Atlantic City, have rejected the idea out of hand, and others have declined to hear details at a public meeting.
“All we want to do is to be able to present our case,” Levinson said. “It is a bit irksome, to put it mildly, that some towns won’t even listen. They owe it to their taxpayers to at least hear us out in a public forum.”
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It is not too late for towns to sign on, Levinson said.
“We’ve got time,” he said.
Cain was pleased with the outcome, stating, “The only way to achieve real tax relief is by a consolidation of services.”