Indiana county debates closing satellite courthouses

County government officials in Indiana are considering closing satellite courthouses in three cities.

The (Northwest Indiana) Times reports that Lake County Council voted 4-3 last week to study whether the superior courthouses in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago are worth the millions spent annually to maintain and operate them.

A consolidation is expected to save $1.9 million annually primarily through layoffs. The county has budgeted $5 million this year for utilities and services in the courthouses, including $500,000 in payroll for 20 janitors and maintenance workers.

Republican councilman Eldon Strong of Crown Point said the courthouses were more practical when lawyers maintained offices near them and residents found it convenient to walk to them to pay their local taxes, fees and fines.

"We didn't have the communications network we now have. Now you can pay taxes at a bank in your neighborhood or online. Some things have changed dramatically, but we haven't, and we spend a lot of money, annually, maintaining these courthouses," Strong said.

The courthouses have seven superior court judges overseeing cases involving minor criminal charges, family law, child support and business disputes.

Democratic councilman David Hamm of Hammond voted against the study. He was against the idea of abandoning buildings the county had invested in and worried about the cost relocating the judges. He said a new courthouse in Crown Point could cost at least $10 million.

Superior Court Judge Calvin Hawkins has been at the East Chicago courthouse for nearly a decade. He said he wouldn't move willingly.

"I think that would be a disaster for citizens, not just here in East Chicago, but (also) for those near the other satellites in Gary and Hammond," he said.

The consolidation doesn't include city courts.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners will weigh in on the issue this week.

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