It's certainly no surprise that a committee of lawyers and so-called legal experts exploring how to best handle a $21 million budget cut within the Massachusetts Trial Court system has included a plan to "relocate" the Gloucester District Court.
That recommendation, after all, has been rumored for several months — and has already sparked rightful opposition on the part of local lawmakers Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Bruce Tarr. Indeed, such a move has likely been on the radar screen since construction began on the new, expanded Salem court complex that is still in the works.
What is surprising, however, is that the recommendation to take the district court and its services out of Gloucester and off Cape Ann came this week with very little explanation, and seemingly devoid of all logic.
In fact, a Gloucester court move or shutdown seems to run contrary to some of the state's key goals — most notably the need to trim its costs paid in rent to cities and towns or other property owners around the state.
There can be at least one case argued for moving the Gloucester court as part of a consolidation effort. Statistics show the local courthouse — which sits atop the Gloucester police station on Main Street — is among the state's least utilized, ranking 57th out of 62 district courts in caseloads for fiscal 2009.
But, as state Sen. Tarr noted, a low caseload was not among the criteria the ad hoc panel cited in recommending 15 court facilities for "relocation." Gloucester's court was the only one in Essex County targeted to be moved out — and that was supposedly based on criteria such as lease terms, staffing, and transportation issues.
Lease terms? That's interesting. The state court system stopped paying rent to the city — which owns the building — in 1993.
In fact, the Mass. Trial Court now reimburses the city just $10,000 a year for maintenance. And according to a municipal facilities report, utilities at the police-court building along cost the city an average of $58,000 a year, with a fair amount of that obviously lighting, heating and cooling the court. That sounds as if the state isn't just getting free rental ride — it's actually getting a subsidy of sorts from a cash-strapped city that can ill afford it.
Many people may look at the low Gloucester caseload and wonder whether there is, indeed a need for a courthouse here or elsewhere on Cape Ann. And many may see a state court pullout as a new opportunity to step up plans to move out the Police Department as well — ideally to a combined police/fire public safety center off Blackburn Circle. That, indeed, would free up the current police/court site for new development — and all of that is a very good idea.
But, as we've noted previously, moving the Gloucester District Court and its services to Salem or someplace else — the report gives no insight or recommendation as to where it would go — isn't just about moving a courtroom.
It would deprive Cape Ann residents of important court-based services, such as the ability to seek a restraining order and pursue other issues related to domestic violence and abuse. And the loss of court services — along with the loss of local jobs — wouldn't be the only local costs associated with a Trial Court pullout.
Any such move would drive up costs for Gloucester and Cape Ann's towns for police staffing and overtime, given that any such move would require officers to travel to Salem or elsewhere to prosecute even the most basic of cases. That, of course, undercuts the city's and towns' efforts at efficiency. And that's hardly a message any arm of the state government should sent to any cities and towns — especially in the face of more anticipated cuts in municipal aid.
Every community whose local courthouse is targeted for relocation may contest these recommendations.
But not every one of these moves targets a constituency relatively isolated from other potential sites. Not every one casts aside a rental deal that's an absolute bargain for the court — and that frankly makes any move to move out Gloucester's court almost unique in its stupidity.
Common sense and logic rarely seem to be factors in state decisions these days. But they should be deciding factors in this case: Gloucester's District Court should stay in Gloucester — and for now, right where it is.