Editorial: Southold moves toward a new Justice Court

As we report in this week’s Suffolk Times, the Southold Town Board seems very close to selecting a new home for the Justice Court.

This project has long been under discussion, and if the board decides to move ahead on one of its current options, the project could cost as much as $37 million.

But this much is very clear: Any further delay in deciding what to do will push the cost even higher. Now is the time to act. Construction costs are way, way up across the region and the country, with basics such as plywood more than tripling in price and some electrical and plumbing supplies hard to come by.

Four decades ago, the Justice Court moved into the current Town Hall building on Main Road. Back then, that was seen as temporary, with the court taking the space where the board holds its meetings. Security was set up in the lobby outside the meeting room, with people waiting to be called before the court standing around. Those coming to do business at the town clerk’s office had to pass through the security area.

To say the least, this was not an ideal use of Town Hall. Riverhead Town has also wrestled with the issue of finding a home for its Justice Court. Former Riverhead Justice Allen Smith used to say the existing town court was a disaster in the making for those who were scheduled to appear, but also in terms of security and policing. Some days, the court clerk’s office was so packed with filing cabinets and boxes there was no place to sit down. Southold, where former Justice Bill Price long voiced similar concerns, is not too far from that. And the estimates now are significantly more costly.

Which is why Southold is pushing ahead to get the job done. At Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, members appeared to favor an option that would also include a new Town Hall. The idea is that the former Southold Savings Bank building -— now a town hall annex — would be converted into the new Justice Court.

With that, a new Town Hall would be constructed in the open space behind the current building. Once that’s done , the old building would be demolished and possibly become open space. The cost of this plan is about $37 million.

There are a lot of moving parts here, with a slightly less expensive route being to remodel both existing buildings — a so-called “double renovation” that would cost in the area of $28 million. Not much difference, and no one knows what issues might crop up in a renovation to send the costs higher. 

If the board chose this option, the existing Town Hall would become the new Justice Court and the former bank building would house town offices.

Yes, the town can simply do repairs – a new roof, some HVAC improvements – but that might be nothing more than putting a patch on an old tire. When the work is done, you still have an old tire.

So smaller upgrades and renovations are not the way to go. Costs will continue to climb. As Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said Tuesday, “I know building costs are high right now, but they’re just going to keep climbing.” She said the board can’t keep kicking the can down the road.

She’s right. The piecemeal approach has not served the town well. It’s time now to act and move quickly — before prices go even higher. The board is expected to discuss this again June 29 and a public hearing on a bond resolution might not be far behind.

While we still want to hear about taxpayer impact, this appears to be a worthy effort to support in a town with dated infrastructure that would continue to need costly repairs.

Either way, you’re going to pay.

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