By Steve Jusseaume
Hampton Union, Friday, May 23, 2003
HAMPTON - Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams urged Hampton town officials to be "pro-active" in keeping the district courthouse in Hampton last week, amid word that the state is considering combining Hampton and Exeter district courts into one facility.
"We should try to shape and control what happens to this district court," Reams told selectmen at the May 12 meeting of the board.
On April 28, the Board of Selectmen authorized Town Manager James Barrington to sign a two-year lease with the state on the courthouse. Hampton leases the 2,600-square-foot, two-story facility to the state at $27,265 annually. The new lease runs for two years, to June 30, 2005.
But the state is considering alternatives to keeping the courthouse in Hampton. Funds in the state's biennial budget this year are earmarked for site planning for a new courthouse, one that could conceivably combine the Hampton and Exeter district courts into one, centrally located building.
Selectman Brian Warburton also referenced "rumors" that Seabrook would like the courthouse relocated to that town. In fact, Town Attorney Mark Gearreald indicated recently that the town of Seabrook is actively trying to get the court located in Seabrook.
Exeter, too, would like to keep its courthouse downtown. Reams recalled a move several years ago to relocate both Hampton and Exeter at the Rockingham County Superior Court building in Brentwood. That idea did not fly when Exeter "fought hard to keep the courthouse downtown" on Water Street, where it is currently located, Reams said.
He noted that combining the two courthouses would require "a statutory change" in the law.
Carol Wright, clerk of the court in Exeter, said that town is not actively lobbying the state to keep the court downtown, but she questioned the wisdom of combining Hampton and Exeter.
"Hampton serves six police departments and Exeter serves 10 departments," Wright said. "A regional court would be huge. You'd have police departments from Newmarket, from Epping and East Kingston, all traveling to one huge facility."
She has heard the rumors about Seabrook lobbying for the court, and found that option impractical also.
"You'd conceivably have Newmarket police traveling to Seabrook for court dates," Wright said.
Describing the current Hampton facility as being in "appalling shape," Reams noted that the state has, in the past, remodeled outdated courthouses, but considering the state's current financial condition, combining Hampton and Exeter in a new facility could save the state money. Reams noted the current court lacks handicapped access, does not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and expressed "surprise" that the state keeps renewing its lease on the building.
It seems apparent, however, that the state needs to cut costs somewhere. A "critical needs" budget cut of about 4 percent, or $2.3 million, has been proposed for New Hampshire's supreme, superior, district and probate court system. While combining Hampton and Exeter into a regional district court would save money on one end, one building serving 16 towns could translate into long days waiting for trials and hearings, for both police and citizens, and possible layoffs.
"Merging the Hampton and Exeter courts? Theoretically, it might be a great idea. But practical? Individual police departments would end up paying huge costs in travel expenses and overtime with police sitting around the court house all day," Wright said.
Also citing potential travel costs and police overtime, Hampton Selectman Cliff Pratt agreed that combining and/or moving the court house out of Hampton "might cost us forever" in travel and police overtime.
Reams cited Nashua's active effort in keeping its court in the city. Nashua "was very pro-active in keeping the superior court house in that city's downtown," Reams noted.
"The state wanted to move superior court out of the downtown, but Nashua donated an acre of land in the downtown area ... That helped influence the state," Reams said, suggesting Hampton do the same.
Barrington noted last week that one option, should the state decide to combine the courts, could be the Park and Ride lot on Exeter Road in the west part of town.
"The state already owns the land," Barrington said, noting that the lot is seldom more than half full. "There's plenty of room."
Still, most selectmen want the district court to stay where it is, on Winnacunnet Road.
"I find it hard to believe the state would move a court to the Massachusetts border," Sullivan said, adding, "I will go to the ends of the earth to keep it here."
He suggested the town might consider donating the land on Winnacunnet Road to the state in exchange for construction of a permanent facility.
For the short term, supporting an extension of the court house lease for another two years, Barrington noted that "there is a positive cash flow into the town from the lease."
The board approved the extension on a 4-to-1 vote, with only Ginny Bridle dissenting.
"We continually don't want to upset the state, but the state continually upsets us," Bridle said.
Reams said the fate of the court could rest with which community wants it more, and suggested that Hampton "reach out to the state of New Hampshire" in its efforts to keep the district court here.