(White Plains, NY) — Faced with family court facilities plagued by deteriorating building conditions that pose safety risks to Westchester families, residents, police officers and court personnel, the Westchester County Board of Legislators (BOL) pressed County Executive Robert P. Astorino’s Administration again this week to stay on track with renovations and long-term solutions.
Although the Administration promised to present the BOL with a plan last year regarding the numerous public safety issues and building problems existing at both the Yonkers and New Rochelle family court facilities, information about the County’s plan only surfaced Wednesday during a meeting of the BOL’s Sub-Committee for Capital Projects, chaired by BOL Vice Chair Lyndon Williams (D-Mount Vernon).
“The Administration is fully aware of the unsafe conditions for Westchester residents visiting our family court facilities, and legislators will stay on top of this issue until these facilities are fixed,” said Williams. “The Administration must stay focused on remediating the problems as quickly as possible. This is an important public safety concern that cannot be ignored any longer.”
According to George Oros, County Executive Astorino’s chief of staff, who reported on the court facilities to the sub-committee at its recent meeting, the Administration is hoping to move the Yonkers family court facility to space in the same building that houses the Yonkers District Office of the Westchester County Department of Social Services (DSS), located in a relatively new building at 131 Warburton Avenue. Oros noted that some of the 15,000-square feet office space in the rented building could be freed up after “downsizing” and consolidation at DSS takes place in the near future.
The move out of the present family court facility in Yonkers could save the County $800,000 in yearly rent paid in the existing family court building, said Oros. But significant renovations would need to be made and in place to meet the requirements for the Family Court.
Also, Oros said the County is hoping to expand the successful videoconferencing set-up in the city courts in New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, White Plains and Peekskill. This program was initiated under County Executive Andy Spano’s Administration in order to reduce mandated costs. This New York State legislature has greatly expanded the use of videoconferencing to reduce the burdens on local governments.
The BOL added $1.5 million dollars to the 2011 Capital Budget over the objections of County Executive Astorino to address the Family Court space issues, a cost mandated by the State.
The New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA) and the BOL must approve the proposals submitted by the Astorino Administration, and they have not done so according to Oros. OCA would also have to approve moving or closing of present court facilities, and inter-municipal agreements with the localities involved in family court videoconferencing would also be needed.
While pleased that the Administration has taken some steps forward on this important issue, Vice Chair Williams noted that full remediation was still a ways off. He said that there are unanswered questions on the impacts to residents on the consolidation and relocation of DSS functions, and that the public, legal community and judiciary must have input before any plan could be finalized. To maintain focus and commitment on fixing the family court problems, Williams asked for bi-weekly progress reports from the Administration to go to the BOL’s Government Reforms, Efficiency & Savings (GRES) and Government Operations (GO) committees.
“Safe court facilities for children, families and other residents should not be looked at as a luxury in Westchester,” said Williams.