NEWS

Top judge sets year-end courthouse deadline

Julie Sherwood

Ontario County has been dragging its feet about making needed changes to its courthouse, a top state judge said Monday.

Judge Thomas M. Van Strydonck wants the courthouse to have a third courtroom adequate to conduct a criminal trial — with a chamber for a judge and staff and a room for jury deliberations — by the end of the year.

 “I don’t have a great deal of confidence” it will happen this year, said Van Strydonck. “But I am hopeful.”

Van Strydonck is administrator of the Seventh Judicial District, which covers eight counties, including Ontario. He said discussions between state and county officials about courthouse renovations began in 1999 and included a timeline that showed the work being finished in 2007.

“This has been going on for almost 10 years,” said Van Strydonck, who presides over cases in Ontario County, as needed, in addition to its three full-time judges.

Van Strydonck cited security concerns to county Administrator Astles in a letter Dec. 18, urging quick action on creating added courthouse space. The judge cited recent examples of his concerns in which high-profile, emotionally charged cases took place in cramped quarters.

On Friday, Astles and county planners met with a representative from the state Office of Court Administration to discuss the plan, which was drafted by state architects a few years ago. It calls for the county attorney’s offices to be moved from the courthouse to another county building and the district attorney’s offices to relocate from their current third-floor location to the former county attorney’s offices on the fourth floor.

The third floor, which also contains the grand jury room, would be converted into a jury courtroom adequate to conduct a criminal trial, with a chamber for a judge and staff and a room for jury deliberations. 

But Astles said Monday it could take three years to make the changes because they depend on a $7.5 million renovation of another county building that would be needed to house offices now in the courthouse.

The courthouse renovation is estimated to cost $500,000. The plan to create a third courtroom for criminal trials involves moving the county attorney’s office — an office of 17 employees that occupies the entire fourth floor of the courthouse at 27 N. Main St. —  to 74 Ontario St., the county’s former jail.

Jail cells will have to be ripped out, and a number of mechanical and design changes will have to be made, including creating a new entrance, said Astles.

The former jail building, located near the courthouse, housed about 165 inmates until the county opened a new, 276-bed jail in Hopewell in 2003. The old jail building now houses the 911 emergency-dispatch center, offices for the sheriff and the county’s information technology department.

“To get the space prepared, that will cost a lot of money,” said Astles.

In a Jan. 4 letter, Astles responded to Van Strydonck’s concerns by saying that “while we have an issue that must be dealt with, we do not have a crisis.”

“While the county will address the issues you raised, there is growing concern by this office and some members of the Board of Supervisors that this is one step in a trend that will ultimately result in the state judicial system occupying the entire County Court House, eventually forcing the district attorney and the Board of Supervisors to also permanently relocate.”

Van Strydonck took issue with the assertion, saying Monday that the issue is not one of the county versus the state but rather one of protecting all who use the courthouse. Even employees at the courthouse paid by the state live in Ontario County and serve county residents, he said.

In responding to Van Strydonck’s concerns, District Attorney R. Michael Tantillo said last month that courthouse safety and space issues have been addressed in other counties, with construction of new courthouses in neighboring Wayne and Yates counties in recent years. Tantillo said the state agreed several years ago to cover the salaries of courthouse employees — county judges, court reporters, law clerks and the like — to provide financial relief to county governments. In exchange, he explained, county leaders are obligated “to provide adequate facilities.”

Supervisor Mary Green, R-Hopewell, a retired state trooper who heads the county’s Public Safety Committee, said the county needs to move on the project in light of Van Strydonck’s message. The project has been delayed in part because of questions about new electronic voting machines, she said.

The county had planned to renovate 74 Ontario St. to incorporate changes needed to house the machines, as well as accommodate courthouse space needs. But the county has not yet been informed when the machines will arrive or what size or type of space they will need. Now it’s time to stop waiting on the voting machines, she said. “We’ve got to take action.”

Meanwhile, Van Strydonck met with Astles Monday to reiterate his concerns and was invited to meet with the Board of Supervisors.

“I’d be happy to meet with whoever, whenever,” said Van Strydonck.

Contact Julie Sherwood at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or at jsherwood@mpnewspapers.com.