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Task force favors holding court in Poulsbo

The city’s inquiry into whether or not it should move its Rolling Bay-located municipal court to Poulsbo has come to this: To negotiate or not?

That’s how Mayor Bob Scales put it Wednesday after he presented a COBI/Poulsbo Municipal Court Task Force recommendation that the city “change the leasing contract for the municipal court facility from the current storage facility to a brand new courthouse only nine miles away.”

Scales said no decision on the negotiations will be made until the council hears from the public during a hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 13, followed by a council discussion of the issue on Oct. 20.

But there’s no doubt that the task force – consisting of Mayor Becky Erickson, Poulsbo council members Ed Stern and Jeff McGinty, Scales and fellow Bainbridge councilor Bill Knobloch – favors moving the court into Poulsbo’s new courthouse.

Scales wrote in his recommendation: “Relocating the court from Rolling Bay to Poulsbo will result in significant benefits for both the city and the users of the court. As an added bonus, the city will save money by relocating the court to Poulsbo due to improved efficiencies in court operations.”

Initially, the thought of moving the court to Poulsbo stemmed from the city’s desire to pursue the possibility of sharing a variety of services with the county and other municipalities in order to cut costs.

That led to the compilation of a fact-based report, which evaluated and compared both courts, and was presented at Wednesday's meeting. It was authored by Dave McCoy, Bainbridge's performance manager, with help from Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer and both court administrators – Bainbridge's Telma Hauth and Poulsbo's Linda Baker.

Even with the private owner of the current home of the COBI court reducing the annual revenue considerably if the court stayed put, annual projected costs would be higher in Rolling Bay than Poulsbo, the report said. Compared to costs in Poulsbo, a Rolling Bay-based court could cost the city an additional: $1,142 in the first year (including $8,600 in moving costs paid by Poulsbo); $14,210 in year two; $15,599 in year three; $17,027 in year four; and $18,494 in year five.

“To us,” Erickson said Wednesday, what we’re really talking about is a simple rental contract.”

Poulsbo has extra room in its new building because Kitsap County decided to close the district court there after investing in the building’s construction.

Erickson said any agreement with Bainbridge Island would include protection for all three groups.

“We have been very clear that we would have a mutual agreement with the county and have it in writing that the county would be a signer with the city,” she said. “It’s a revenue situation for the county, too, so it’s really not an issue.”

Both the task force’s report and Scales’ recommendation indicated that there were many reasons besides finances why the court should be relocated.

Scales said Poulsbo was superior in many ways to the Bainbridge court, which he characterized as being located in a former storage facility in an isolated area on the island. The benefits, he said, would include: better access to public transportation, since Rolling Bay has very little bus service while Kitsap Transit runs hourly between the two cities; Poulsbo offers a long-term leasing option in a public building; Poulsbo would offer courthouse “dignity and respect” and would provide victims, witnesses and jurors a better and safer experience than found in its current facility; and a building that would minimize the city’s liability risk.

Scales derided the current facility by quoting Judge Kathryn Carruthers’ public statements when she spoke during a capital projects hearing last year about the need for a new law enforcement/court building on the island.

“The judge said a court in a storage shed did not dignify the proceedings and was unsafe,” Scales said. “She also said it didn’t meet the basic requirements and did not have good community access.”

Carruthers has acknowledged the current court’s deficiencies, but said that a $15,000 upgrade by owner Tord Vestman would address the most pressing concerns. She added that keeping the court in the community it serves is the most important issue since the building has been the court’s home for manly years.

“A municipal court belongs in the municipality that it serves,” she said. “We do deserve a better facility and when the economy supports it the city will undertake it.”

Scales argued that it will take “15 to 20 years” before the cash-strapped city could afford building a new home for the court.

Carruthers said people who are most vulnerable are the ones who would suffer the most if the court moved.

“I know its only nine miles away,” she said, “but we serve people who are vulnerable and afraid and any obstacle put in their path often stops them from getting help. They will feel more protected here.”

Scales said in his report that most people who are required to attend court “are generally concerned about three things: anonymity, privacy and confidentiality.” Because of that, he said, their preference is a court in a more urban area than a court located in a familiar, residential area.

“What Poulsbo has is a good court,” Scales said. “So is it more important to keep our court in Rolling Bay or in a new facility that remedies the many problems that have been identified? Now we have that opportunity.”

Howard Block, co-owner of the nearby Bay Hay and Feed, said it will be more difficult for many people who aren’t being allowed to drive to get to Poulsbo than what was being said by proponents of the move.

He said relocating the court would be a negative for a community that had voted for a city government so it could provide for itself.

“This is not good sign,” he said. “It’s a little like retreating from what we wanted. We should continue to develop the island like when we voted for it.”

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