$15 million to burn on a courthouse

The state is awash in red ink. Everywhere you look there are new taxes and fees, while existing taxes and fees have been substantially increased. And to top it all off, the Legislature just held a “tax summit” to talk about how to take even more of our money. Yet no attempt is made to cut wasteful and unnecessary government spending. A prime example is the $17 million in “renovations” planned for the Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester.

Superior courts in New Hampshire are arranged according to county. Each county has one courthouse, except for Hillsborough, which has two, one in Manchester and one in Nashua. The courthouse in Manchester, known as Hillsborough North, is scheduled to close for 18 months beginning in January 2010 so that $17 million in renovations can be made to it. This includes $2 million to remove asbestos.

While these renovations take place, Hillsborough North will move into the Hillsborough South courthouse in Nashua. According to Stephen Lorentzen, state administrator for the Bureau of Court Facilities, “the building has capacity for much of the [Manchester] staff without us doing anything.” 

This raises an obvious question: Why, if the Nashua courthouse has the capacity to house both Hillsborough South and Hillsborough North, do we need a Hillsborough North, let alone a Hillsborough North renovated to the tune of $17 million? The question answers itself.

The savings from closing Hillsborough North would exceed $17 million. We would only have to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of one facility. And if run properly, it should take less staff to operate the court at just one facility. Some of the overlapping or redundant positions could be left unfilled as they become vacant over time due to resignation and retirement.

Even if Hillsborough South does not have the capacity to also house Hillsborough North on a permanent basis (which is very hard to believe, since it will be housing Hillsborough North for 18 months), why during this time of record deficits are we not simply removing the asbestos from Hillsborough North? If there were ever a time not to be building a judicial Taj Mahal, it is now.

What makes this exercise in judicial self-indulgence particularly galling is that the Supreme Court is talking about closing all courts in New Hampshire for 12 days as a way to deal with the state’s budget mess. Talk about being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

In fairness, the judiciary is not the only branch of government that views the taxpayers as ATMs. Then-Hillsborough County Attorney Marguerite Wageling requested that her staff of attorneys be given an extra hour a day of pay plus mileage money for commuting to Nashua. Incredibly, the county delegation approved the request.

Wageling has since been made a Superior Court judge. Fiscally, she should fit right in.

Edward C. Mosca is a Manchester lawyer.

Categories: Opinion