HP fights unfunded mandate requiring added security in municipal court.

Borough officials are continuing to fight an unfunded mandate from the state to place a second guard in the municipal court, but time may be running out.

The mandate, handed down some years ago by the New Jersey State Administrative Office of the Courts, requires municipal courts to have not one but two court security officers whenever court is in session. Highland Park uses one, and has resisted the order since it was first handed down. If borough officials continue to resist, the borough could lose the right to hold municipal court.

The issue for borough officials is the executive order prohibiting state government from issuing requirements/regulations/mandates without the funding to pay the costs of implementing such mandates. Unfunded mandates occur when officials above the local level declare that municipalities must provide a service, and then leave it to local officials to find a way to pay for it, rather than raising the money at a higher level and doling it out appropriately.

Borough court typically holds session twice a week with Judge Edward Herman; for these sessions, a Highland Park police officer serves as court security officer. Court security officers receive paid time-and-a-half, a wage that can reach as high as $90 an hour. Putting two police officers in the court could drive the cost to more than $40,000 over the course of a single calendar year.

The expense can come as a fiscal shock to all municipalities, but is particularly hard on small communities like Highland Park, with a correspondingly small tax base and little potential to increase that tax base.

“I’m not going to spend taxpayer money for this,” said Mayor Gayle Brittler during a recent Borough Council discussion on the subject. “If this is something some judge in New Brunswick or in Trenton wants, then let them pay for us.”

The borough potentially has the option of hiring a qualified security officer from outside the Police Department, at the rate of $15 an hour. Regular Highland Park police cannot be paid at this lower rate because of Civil Service regulations, officials said. It is unclear how the police union would react to such a move.

“Whether the PBA would file a grievance if we hired special II officers would be up to them,” said Ms. Kovach. “It is not outlined in the PBA agreement “

The borough for years has tried to find a way around the requirement, but officials are growing concerned that time is running out, as Assignment Judge Travis Francis in New Brunswick reportedly has been pressing the borough to move forward.

If Judge Francis were to revoke Highland Park’s right to hold municipal court, police and municipal officers still could issue citations for speeding, building code violations and other minor offenses, and those so charged still would have their day in court, by consolidating their municipal court proceedings with another municipality.

A September 2010 municipal court consolidation plan issued by the state Department of the Judiciary outlines options for municipalities that choose to consolidate their courts with those of another municipality. In a shared court, each municipality would appoint its own judge and maintain its own court bank accounts, but together would share staff, supplies and space. However, the two courtrooms would lose their distinct identities and bank accounts, and the new judge would be appointed by the Governor’s Office, according to the 2010 consolidation plan.

“We’ve been having this conversation for five years,” said Councilwoman Elise Foster-Dublin. “They’re pushing back on us real hard, and this is where we are.”

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