Bainbridge, Poulsbo may share court facilities

At the forefront of a meeting Wednesday between the Bainbridge and Poulsbo City Councils was the possibility of moving Bainbridge’s municipal court services to Poulsbo, a move some councilors believe would help save money and get out of a building that was never meant for that purpose. Others think it will cost Bainbridge one of its most valuable services.

“We’re in a situation where we have an unsafe and inadequate court facility that is in an area that is already relatively remote,” said Mayor Bob Scales.

A number of other councilors agreed with Scales’ logic. Most had already decided a new court facility was necessary, but constructing a new facility wasn’t possible given financial constraints over the last several years.

Most councilors identified with the plausability of a shared courthouse in Poulsbo, while others weren’t so sure.

Councilor Barry Peters said the loss of a municipal court facility in town would result in a loss of a key resource the city provides for victims of domestic and other crimes, a service that allows people to feel connected to the government. Peters appreciated the cooperation demonstrated by the two councils at the meeting, but he wondered whether or not it would be smarter to start small.

“Let’s keep an open mind and continue to look for ways to cooperate, but let’s not assume that the best way is to eliminate the special relationship a local government provides through the court,” he said.

The loss of the municipal court may impact some local organizations as well.

YWCA Alive has been operating out of the court building since 1994. It helps provide support and resources to victims of domestic violence. A potential move off Bainbridge could hurt the organization.

“A key factor to the long-standing partnership has been the connection between the Alive program and the Bainbridge Island Municipal Court system,” said Barbara Chandler-Young, a legal advocate for the YWCA program.

What’s next

At the meeting, City Performance Manager Dave McCoy presented a possible timeline for solving the municipal court dilemma. City staff warned that the timeline is hypothetical and doesn’t represent an actual deadline.

April 9 to June 11 - Staff collects the first phase of data, focusing on the functions of the individual courts of Bainbridge and Poulsbo.

May 3 to May 14 - Staff develops options for the courthouse, including a shared courthouse, a contract with Poulsbo to use its court for trial purposes only, or finding a new site on Bainbridge.

May 18 - Members of each council will participate in a joint task force to give direction as to what options the councils prefer.

June 14 to 18 - Staff will give a progress report on the data collected to that point.

June 21 to 25 - Council task force gives feedback on staff progress report.

July 1 to 31 - Staff collects second phase of data, begin public participation project.

Aug. 2 to 20 - Staff prepares a final report on the various options previously selected.

Aug. 23 to Sept. 10 - Councils review the report and make a decision on which option to persue.

Sept. 13 to Oct. 17 - Poulsbo and Bainbridge councils build negotiating teams to talk out the details.

Oct. 18 - Each council signs off on the final plan for the courthouse.

Sept. 13 to Jan. 1 - Staff continues execution of the option chosen by the two councils.

Interim City Manager Lee Walton said the date of Jan. 1, 2011, for completion of the process, is an arbitrary one. It could very well be later.

“There’s nothing magic about,” he said. “It could be Feb. 1. We had to start some place.”

Chandler-Young said at the meeting that a lot of the program’s business comes from people who have just gotten restraining orders or taken other protective measures at the court. Those clients will be lost should the facility be taken to Poulsbo.

The court provides a number of services, many of which help protect assault and harassment victims. The court also affords citizens a location to apply for passports and pay fines. The police department uses the current facility to obtain arrest and search warrants.

According to the 2010 budget, the court costs the city $600,000 annually, $540,000 of which goes to the salaries and benefits of court employees. In January the council identified the possibility of a combined court as a primary method of long term savings.

More than 20 years ago, the Bainbridge Municipal Court moved into its current home on Valley Road, a location that was supposed to be temporary.

But the temporary home became permanent when the city couldn’t find the funds to build a new courthouse.

For years, the council has looked to move the service to a different location.

“I’m totally convinced we have to move our court,” said City Councilor Bill Knobloch. “Our facilities are inadequate.”

The municipal court function needs to be moved somewhere else, but the question remains, where?

Enter Poulsbo. The city is near completion of a new City Hall and courthouse. The new venue, which would be used only for sessions that are part time like those the Bainbridge court conducts, could potentially house both municipalities.

Wednesday’s meeting represented the first time the two councils discussed sharing a court, but members of each administration have been meeting and debating options since late January.

Despite support for the possibility of a shared court, nothing has been decided. If, following further research, a shared court doesn’t benefit both Bainbridge and Poulsbo, then it won’t happen.

“If we have a decline in local services and the communities are not being well served, this is a no-go,” said Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson.

The next step in the process is for the city’s staff to collect data on the individual functions of the courts. Then, in May, a list of options will be presented, including: staying in the current building; merging or contracting with Poulsbo; moving the court to City Hall with trials held in Poulsbo; or finding another site on Bainbridge.

According to the city’s timeline, a public process will take place in July prior to the councils making decisions in the fall. Dave McCoy, performance manager for the city and an analyst on the court project, said the public shouldn’t be left out of this decision.

“There’s a lot of angst and concern about where this is going,” he said. “It would be a critical mistake to not include the community and the users in this analysis.”

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