Court administrator Brad Cober sent those letters, and one from the county commissioners that supported elimination of the Windber office, along with the court's final realignment proposal Thursday to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. AOPC is the administrative arm of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has administrative authority over the entire Pennsylvania court system.
"I am hopeful after the AOPC reviews our proposal they will understand our methodology and reasoning as to why (they should) keep all five magisterial districts intact," Cober said. "In the event we are told we have to eliminate an office, it will send us back to the drawing board to relocate three or four offices to make them more centralized."
Judicial redistricting is required by law to take place once every 10 years following the census to determine how to better allocate state court system resources.
In October state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille set a goal of reducing the number of magisterial districts statewide by 10 percent to help with a financial crunch in the state judicial system. Each president judge was ordered to examine the feasibility of eliminating magisterial districts in his county, with a strong preference of doing so through attrition when a sitting judge's term expires or when a judge reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
"This is especially germane in light of the recent resignation of District Judge (Joseph) Cannoni in Windber," the commissioners wrote President Judge John M. Cascio on Jan. 30, calling Cannoni's resignation "the unique situation that presents itself." Cannoni still presides over cases in District 16-3-02 in Windber as a senior district judge.
The commissioners said their recommendation is based on trying to save county money while still providing the services needed by its residents.
Additionally, the commissioners said closing one office and centrally locating the remaining offices will more equitably balance the workload.
AOPC provided statistics that included the number of case filings for each magisterial district and a breakdown of the filings by municipality.
"The statistics provided by the AOPC show that Somerset County has an average caseload that is 23 percent greater than any other sixth-class county," Cascio wrote AOPC in a cover letter Wednesday. "As a result, we are not proposing to eliminate any districts but do propose realigning all existing districts in the county."
Cascio said travel continues to increase in Somerset County as a result of the Flight 93 and Quecreek memorials, and that trend will only continue if Route 219 is completed. The traffic situation combined with the county's unique topography and second largest number of highway miles of any sixth-class county "distinguishes our situation," he wrote.
"Two of our existing (magisterial) districts are larger, in terms of square miles, than several counties in the Commonwealth," he added.
Increased transportation costs was a theme throughout all the letters submitted by the public.
Paint Township police Chief Richard Skiles wrote that eliminating the Windber office would be a mistake.
"If that court is eliminated and we have to travel to District Court 16-3-01 in Boswell, Paint Township will incur additional expense for overtime, fuel and vehicle depreciation/maintenance costs totaling over $11,800," he wrote.
That expense will have to be passed on to local governments, he said.
Randy Salem, owner of Randy's BiLo Foods along Jefferson Avenue in Windber, wrote that the potential elimination of the Windber office is a concern to local business owners.
"As a business owner of a retail supermarket the benefit and conveniences of having a local magistrate for retail theft charges, bad checks, or any other criminal charges needed to be filed is quite beneficial to the efficiencies of my business," he wrote.
Another Windber business owner agreed.
Keith Hollern, president of Hollern & Sons Auto Sales along 17th Street, called the Windber office "an asset to our business."
Daniel Dabbs, president of Central City Borough Council, wrote that years ago a magisterial office in Central City Borough was closed and Windber was designated as the office to handle matters for the area. That consolidation was "a great inconvenience for residents in the Central City area."
If the Windber office is closed, Central City area residents will have to bear even more of a burden because of the additional travel time it would take to get to Boswell, he said.
Those transportation costs would apply to police services as well. The borough closed its police department in 2002 and contracted with Paint Township police.
"Central City Borough has already made sacrifices to ensure police protection and the borough is not financially secure to absorb additional costs," Dabbs wrote.
The final proposal will be reviewed by AOPC and the Supreme Court will issue a final order sometime in the fall. The new districts will take effect on Jan. 1.