Lavallette officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the budget issues surrounding the borough’s municipal court following several years of falling revenues.
The one option off the table is a ticket blitz – the borough council pledged the court would never be used as a revenue generator – but the financial solvency of the court remains important since further drops in revenue could leave taxpayers on the hook for the difference.
“You can’t justify the expense – it used to be self-supporting, and that was fine,” said Councilwoman Joanne Filippone. “But it’s [the revenue] just not there, and I don’t know why. I think we have to look at what’s available and what works for us.”
The court used to generate a relatively steady stream of revenue, adding up to about $60,000 per year. Last year, revenue dipped to just $27,000, and officials said the borough will be “lucky” if 2022 ends with $20,000. Council members said they would accept breaking even, but if the trend continues, the court could become an expenditure item rather than a revenue item.
Across New Jersey, municipalities have occasionally condensed municipal courts through shared services agreements. Mantoloking, for example, already uses the Lavallette court room for its proceedings. But fully merging courts, or alternatively outsourcing operations to another town, has the potential to eliminate the cost of a judge, court administrator, clerks and other employees required to keep a courtroom functional.
“Frankly, we would be further ahead if we gave our money to another town and said, ‘you get the tickets and process them,’ and then we don’t have to pay the operational costs,” said Borough Administrator John O. Bennett.
There were no definitive reasons why revenue has dropped, but there were several theories, ranging from staffing, to law enforcement culture, to the redevelopment of neighboring Seaside Heights.
“There were 26 bars open in Seaside, going seven days a week” at one time, said Mayor Walter LaCicero, pointing to the spillover of alcohol-related trouble.
Manpower shortages in recent years have also reduced the number of officers on patrol, naturally leading to a reduction in summonses issued. This year, Filippone said, the borough hired four special officers for the summer, down from 10 in the past. Historically, the borough would receive about 60 applications for summer law enforcement employment, but in 2022 just 10 people applied, four of whom qualified and were hired. Police department across the country are reporting a recruiting crisis.
There is also less of a focus on summonses in law enforcement culture and training in 2022.
“The philosophy is compliance – we’re not out to stick it to people to get money, we want people to obey the rules,” said Filippone. “There are no quota systems, and I don’t believe in them anyway. But the court is an ongoing expense that we have to deal with.”
Bennett, who began the 2023 budgeting process over the past few weeks, pledged to work with Filippone and other members of the council to investigate potential solutions.