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Budget cuts lead to NYM court closing

Cuts to the state judicial system and a decreasing demand for services in this part of the county led Seventh District judges to close court in New York Mills. Effective Oct. 1, residents in East Otter Tail County will no longer have the convenience of making court appearances in NY Mills.

The NY Mills court, located in the county services building on North Main, is a satellite office of the county courthouse in Fergus Falls and gives residents in the eastern part of the county the opportunity to appear in court closer to home. The Mills court is the last remaining adjunct, or satellite, office in the 7th District, and one of only a few remaining around the state.

The judges notified county commissioners last week of the decision to close the Mills office.

The county opened the NY Mills court in 1994 and judges appeared in Mills one day a week on Fridays. The last couple years, court services were cut back to twice a month on the second and fourth Fridays.

According to Judge Mark Hansen, the state is facing major budget difficulties and with recent cuts to the judicial system the decision to stop holding court in Mills is because it's no longer financially feasible to provide court services in Mills. To operate in Mills, one judge, two court administration staff, a court reporter, a bailiff, and law clerk must travel from Fergus Falls to hold court a half day in the morning, then return to work in Fergus in the afternoon.

With the volume of cases down and cuts to court administration staff in Fergus, Hansen said they had to make the decision to close the Mills courtroom. He did, however, say there is the possibility of reinstating court here in the future, if funding returns and caseloads increase.

"This isn't a case of not wanting to be there (New York Mills)," Hansen said. "It's a wonderful facility and we really like to use it."

Steve Peloquin, an attorney with offices in both New York Mills and Perham, has pushed for more use of the Mills courthouse for years and understands the county's reasoning for closing the courthouse but is disappointed with the decision, nonetheless.

"This is a great convenience and great service for this part of the county, and we're going to miss that," Peloquin said. "Judges were willing to come over here and we were lucky for that."

Peloquin recognizes the fact that judges are looking to best utilize their time, along with that of court staff, and are not necessarily wanting to drive to Mills a couple times a month, still he thinks it is a mistake to close the facility.

"I really think it's important we have this service for the people in East Otter Tail," Peloquin said. "It's a long way to the courthouse in Fergus Falls."

The affect the closing has on local attorneys like Peloquin is that now, instead of handling simple court procedures on uncontested matters and first appearances for criminal matters quickly in Mills, attorneys and clients will have to travel to Fergus Falls, and face one hour of windshield time, for a 15 minute court appearance.

Cases handled in New York Mills are typically first appearance criminal charges like DWI's, traffic violations, as well as changes in family law cases such as visitations and custody.

Typically, about 90 percent of the cases that had scheduled hearings were resolved before the hearing court took place. The volume of criminal cases is not there to justify keeping the Mills court open, Hansen said.

Typically, every county has a courthouse and court administrator. But now, in this age of budget constraints, counties are looking to combine court administrative services. When Wadena County laid off its court administrator about six months ago, the Otter Tail County Court Administrator took over court services for Wadena.

Kathy Ouren is the court administrator for Otter Tail County who is also handling court administration for Wadena. She said stopping service in New York Mills is budget driven, as well as they are not seeing the volume of cases they used to, and it was a matter of prioritizing services with reduced resources.

Ouren said the Otter Tail County court administration staff is down one full-time position. She said the move to stop court services in Mills had to do with a strain on financial and human resources.

"It is a very important service in New York Mills," Ouren said. "It's not because we don't think service is important for that part of the county."

The history of the satellite court in Mills goes back to the early 1980's when a courthouse was established in Perham. The court operated out of what is now the Perham Enterprise Bulletin building. In 1994, a bit of a coup took place when New York Mills built a new school and the county moved the satellite office into what is now called the county building in Mills. Other county services agencies like OTC Public Health later moved into the facility.