Closing the Bristol courthouse – a cost-cutting measure proposed Wednesday by Gov. Jodi Rell – may not be the best news, but could provide needed space for the city, some local officials said.
Mayor Art Ward said that while he would rather not see the local courthouse close, it might offer the city a way to avoid a costly expansion of City Hall or the Bristol Police Department.
“It’s proven itself more of a convenience than an necessity,” Ward said.
Closing the Meriden and Bristol courthouses, as the governor proposes, will save $2.1 million by eliminating funding for 29 positions and associated costs, according to Rell's budget. Another $438,000 would be saved by axing five public defenders who work at the two courthouses.
State Rep. Frank Nicastro, a Bristol Democrat, said while the loss of the courthouse would hurt, he also sees an opportunity to turn something negative into something positive.
"The police department is hurting for space," said Nicastro. "City Hall is hurting for space. It could have a silver lining behind it. It could work out to our advantage."
Nicastro said "tough decisions" have to be made in difficult economic times.
"I'm disappointed that the courthouse is being closed," said Nicastro. "I don't want to see anybody lose their job."
State Rep. Chris Wright, a Bristol Democrat, pledged to do what he could to save the courthouse.
"Naturally, I wouldn't want to lose the Bristol courthouse," said Wright.
Wright said court cases from Bristol were to be transferred to New Britain, which he said is also absorbing cases from another courthouse on the closure list.
"Do they have enough space in New Britain to hold all that?" asked Wright.
A long-forgotten state law requires the Bristol courthouse remain open at least 40 weeks a year, a measure written into the statute book more than 15 years ago when former House Minority Leader Edward Krawiecki, Jr took the initiative to block earlier talk of shutting the Bristol institution.
However, the law doesn’t specifically require a superior court locally so it’s always possible the state could stick a traffic or small claims court in the space and comply with the law's wordig without leaving much of a judicial footprint in town.
The state tried most recently in 2001 to close the courthouse. The effort was beaten back by the city's legislators and former Mayor Frank Nicastro's administration.
State Rep. Betty Boukus, a Plainville Democrat whose 22nd District includes a bit of Bristol, said she is quite concerned that the state keeps shifting its facilities to New Britain, a place that’s hard for Bristol residents to reach.
Both Wright and Nicastro also said they didn't like to see services close in Bristol and get transferred out of town.
"The courthouse services a lot of people," said Nicastro.
"They're taking everything from Bristol and moving it out," said Wright. "Whenever there are cuts to be made, Bristol's the one that's getting the hit."
Rep. Bill Hamzy, a Plymouth Republican whose district includes Bristol, said the courthouse has been eyed in the past for closing.
"It's been something that's been on the chopping block for at least 20 years," said Hamzy, who said the courthouse "may be an option" for filling the city's need for space.
If the city wants to keep the courthouse open, said Hamzy, representatives will have to propose some other means of saving from another part of the budget.
But Hamzy said the city has been considering an expansion of the police department.
"This may be an option," said Hamzy.
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