State reducing hours at Bennington courthouse
BENNINGTON — Bennington Superior Civil and Probate division hours at the courthouse on South Street will be reduced next month, with the building opening to the public later and closing earlier.
The planned change "is due our budgetary constraints for security," according to a media release from Laurie Canty, the regional Superior Court clerk for Bennington, Addison and Rutland counties.
A state court official said later Thursday that the change is related to a new contract with the Bennington County Sheriff's Department that includes higher hourly rates of pay for deputies providing security.
With the higher pay rate and fewer courthouse hours, the overall costs "will be a wash," said Tari Scott, the chief of Vermont trial court operations.
She said sheriffs in Vermont have expressed a desire to raise pay levels, and the agreement concerning Bennington will allow that but with fewer hours in the South Street courthouse. The Criminal and Family division courts on Veterans Memorial Drive won't be affected by the change.
Contacted via email Wednesday, Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt declined to comment in detail, saying that, "since it wasn't my decision, I don't feel comfortable commenting on it. It should come from the state."
He said sheriff's department courthouse contracts are handled by negotiators at the state level.
Scott said at least three other county sheriff's in the state are currently in negotiations for a new court security contract and are considering this or similar approaches to control spending and/or to increase pay rates.
Canty said the hours in Bennington civil and probate courts will change from the current 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., which would allow hearings between 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Court employees will continue to work from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and will be available by telephone, but access hours for direct court services to the public will be reduced.
Canty referred further comment to the Vermont court administration officials.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is regrettable," said Probate Judge D. Justine Scallon, as she was leaving the courthouse on Thursday.
She said the issue is one of providing people enough access to justice, especially since court calendars already are crowded, and the reduced hours will make that process more difficult.
Superior Court judges David Barra and William Cohen could not be reached Thursday for comment.
State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said earlier this week that he was trying to learn more about the decision from court administrative personnel.
However, Sears said the change is no doubt related to frustrated efforts to add more funding for courthouse security to state budgets.
Patricia Gabel, the Vermont Court administrator, could not be reached for comment. In 2016, she and several Vermont judges had called for a significant increase in funding for court security officers statewide.
"I don't remember being made aware of this," Sears said in an email. "I can tell you that for the last several years the [Scott] administration and House Appropriations have failed to fund increases in courthouse security. Each year the Senate Appropriations Committee has increased the appropriations, but not to the level requested. I would assume it is related to this factor."
Concerning state funding, Sears said that in the fiscal 2019 budget, the judiciary system recommend an 8 percent increase, but the Scott administration and the Vermont House recommended no increase, while the Senate "went with 4 percent at my recommendation, and they ended up with 4 percent."
Sears said he is responsible for the criminal justice budget as a member of Senate Appropriations.
"I did speak with Chad [Schmidt] and several other sheriffs who felt they could live with this rate," Sears said. "Then in the [fiscal] 2020 budget, the same happened again, with judiciary asking for 8 percent and governor and House at 0 percent, once again."
Sears said he again recommend an increase of 4 percent, "and I think this year we ended up closer to 3 percent in the final budget."
He said that, since he only learned this week about the cutback in security hours in Bennington, "I can only speculate it is due to underfunding."
Sears added, "Windham County has gone to private security for its courthouses, since the sheriff did not feel he could provide security at the rate the court was able to pay."
In Windham County in 2016, court security duties were transferred after a bidding process to a private firm, Securitas Security Services USA Inc., after the state and the county sheriff's department failed to agree on a new contract.
The Brattleboro Reformer quoted Windham Sheriff Keith Clark as saying at the time that a 10 to 12 percent increase would have been needed in order for the department to break even on the courthouse security detail. He said he had only been offered an increase of 3 percent and had voiced concern about the issue for a couple of years.
Securitas is a subsidiary of Securitas AB, based in Sweden.
Drop box planned
The court will use a drop box on the front steps to accept filings from 8 to 8:45 a.m., Canty said, and from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. during weekdays and non-holidays.
Emergency stalking order requests can also be filed when the civil court is not open to the public earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon at the criminal and family division courthouse, she said.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.