Budget bill gives reprieve to Westfield courthouse

WESTFIELD – The Westfield District Court will remain open in the city, at least until next year, after Gov. Deval Patrick signed a supplemental budget bill Thursday which provides additional funds for the trial court system and mandates limitations on actions by court officials to close courts in the commonwealth.
In July, 2011, after Patrick signed into law a budget which continued a pattern of reducing funds appropriated for the courts, Roderick Ireland, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and Robert Mulligan, Chief Justice for Administration and Management, announced a plan to address problems caused by of years of reduced appropriations for the trial court system, by closing 11 courthouses across the commonwealth, which included additional cuts to the court’s budget.
The court in Westfield was among those planned to be closed and local officials immediately objected to the plan, citing the increased costs which would be borne by the nine cities and towns which the court services, as well as the additional hardships which would be imposed on the residents who use the court.
The announced plan would spread the court’s business to the courthouses in Holyoke, Great Barrington and Chicopee, and assign the employees in the Westfield courthouse to other courts.
The supplemental budget provides $12 million for the trial court system, which has seen a $96 million shortfall over the past three years, according to the Westfield court’s senior justice, Philip A. Contant.
The budget bill includes a measure which requires that no courthouse be closed, except by order of a recently mandated civilian administrator of the courts, who is not expected to be hired until early next year.
Under the measure, the administrator will be required to give the legislators 90 days notice of any planned closures or relocations of courts and to report to the legislature “the specific reason for any such closure or relocation, the cost saving, a plan to provide service to citizens affected by such closure, the transfer of personnel, the reallocation of resources, the impact on other courthouses .. and other factors that may affect implementation of any such closure.”
State Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) said Friday that the budget bill buys time for all the interested parties to prepare their case to keep the Westfield court open.
He said, “We’ve got sufficient time to make the case at the highest level” and said that he is working with fellow legislators – representatives Don Humason (R-Westfield) and Nick Boldyga (R-Southwick) – to prepare their case.
Knapik said the three lawmakers have sent letters to the police chiefs, mayors, and selectmen of the communities which would be affected by the closure of the Westfield court to “get a sense of the hardships” which would affect their citizens if the court were to close.
Knapik also pointed out that the lease for the building which houses the Westfield court expires at the end of the year, before any action could take place, so there will have to be discussions with the landlord. He said that the legislator’s will be in a better position to argue their case with the new court administrator if some sort of agreement with the landlord is in place.
He also said that, while it is not immediately feasible “The commonwealth ought to think about buying the court (building)” since ownership of the building “would make this (problem) go away.”
Knapik said that the legislators would have to take further action this year because “that twelve million (dollars) is not enough to let them operate for the rest of the year.”
He said, “we’re going to have to revisit this issue.”

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