HARRY HURLEY OPINION EDITORIAL

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson has come up with an idea to merge all municipal courts into one consolidated Atlantic County court, based in Mays Landing.

In Levinson’s favor is that New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney strongly supports his idea and Sweeney has publicly pledged to introduce legislation to make it happen.

I have a lot of faith in Sweeney. He’s a very good man.

Sweeney has also been a long-time staunch supporter of Atlantic County and Southern New Jersey.

Where I see Levinson having a big problem with his gambit is that it appears that he didn’t properly communicate to the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, or, many local Mayors and officials before announcing his idea to the public.

To be fair, some are saying that Levinson did reach out in October with regards to his idea.

I have spoken with numerous elected officials in Atlantic County. There appears to be a genuine lack of support for this change.

They like their home rule. They want to keep their localness. People that face a local infraction like their already established home town court system.

Consolidation is certainly not without merit. Many Atlantic County municipalities have numerous taxpayer paid expenses:

A Court Administrator/Clerk

Deputies

Other staff

Expense for the Municipal Judge

Other operating expenses

Some of these local courts experience an annual operating loss, as the revenue generated does not cover all of their costs.

I have also researched outside of this area where consolidated systems similar to what Levinson is proposing are already in place.

In Delaware, it’s called The Court of Common Pleas. It appears to function well.

In Palm Beach County Florida, they also do it, seemingly without complaint.

What remains to be seen is how the 23 municipalities in Atlantic County feel about Levinson’s plan?

You may recall a few years ago, New Jersey Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo proposed consolidating all local Tax Assessors into a consolidated County-wide format.

Levinson and almost every local elected official summarily trashed Mazzeo and his idea. The Mazzeo plan suffered an excruciating, humiliating death.

In Mazzeo’s case, Levinson and other leaders rightly concluded that Mazzeo’s consolidation plan would actually increase costs and municipalities would lose their local control.

Now, Levinson will have to prove that his consolidation plan will now do the opposite of what he vocally complained about in the recent past.

The best thing Levinson has going for him is that he was very smart to get Sweeney enthusiastically in his corner.

Because at this time, there is very little local support for his plan.

My initial impression is that Levinson’s plan would save money (overall). Municipalities will lose revenue. Will municipalities be charged an assessment to participate in the proposed consolidated County Court?

I also think it would be a shame to lose the position of municipal judge and municipal prosecutor. It’s a great proving ground and serves as excellent training for future advancement to higher courts.

For example, New Jersey Senator Chris Brown is a former municipal judge in Galloway Township, where he did a great job.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary Siracusa is one of the finest. She started out as a very successful and highly respected municipal judge.

I remain persuadable, however, I am presently opposed to the Levinson plan until he provides credible proof of concept.

Also, I must award well earned demerits to Levinson for his failure to achieve any local consensus before unleashing his scheme to the public.

Levinson showed some level of disrespect to The Freeholders and many local elected officials who would have to live with the ramifications if this consolidation plan were to take effect.

They will all be held accountable for this, yet they were not given the proper respect in advance. That’s just bad form on Levinson’s part.

Consolidation is always a very thorny issue. Consolidating Superintendents and school districts would also save big taxpayer dollars.

However, municipalities have made it known for years that they want their own school, their own superintendent, their own police and fire chief and so on.

That’s why Levinson should have properly communicated with local municipalities before making his public announcement.

When you attempt to enact this kind of consolidation, you need all the friends that you can get.

You don’t get to addition through subtraction.

There’s a long way to go. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.

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