NORTH SMITHFIELD – With larger projects including the initiatives to both build a police station and reuse the former Halliwell property still uncertain, the Town Council is considering a potentially faster moving plan to relocate municipal court to Town Hall, freeing up more time for both seniors and scouting troops that make use of Scouter’s Hall.
Court sessions currently occupy the Main Street building on the first and third Wednesday of each month, sharing the space with both seniors, who hold exercise and other classes there, and troops that hold meetings and events. The building, tucked away from the main road beside Pacheco Park, has also as a polling place in past elections.
The effort to move the court sessions comes amid a push by senior advocates in town to see the property that once held Halliwell Elementary School converted into a space dedicated specifically to North Smithfield’s older population. At meetings and hearings over the past year, Senior Advisory Committee Chairperson Linda Thibault has noted that North Smithfield is one of the only towns in the region the does not currently offer a senior center.
But the conversion of the sprawling 11-building former school into useable space is a large-scale and likely expensive project, expected to take many years to complete. In discussion of the property earlier this month, Council Vice President Kimberly Alves suggested that town officials could instead focus on renovating Scouter’s Hall to create more space for seniors.
In discussion this week Alves repeated the idea of renovating Scouter’s noting that, “maybe that’s the option for seniors, and not Halliwell.”
The idea was also brought up this week by Council President John Beauregard, who said he hopes to begin discussion of the issue at the board’s next meeting
“That would be step one in moving the seniors over there,” said Beauregard, adding that the council chambers would make a much better location for the court sessions. “They’re just going to have to make a small adjustment.”
That Greene Street building, which once held Kendall Dean Elementary School, was fully renovated during a $5.2 million bond-financed project completed last year.
Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski said he did discuss the idea of relocation with those who run the court earlier this year.
“There has been some preliminary thought given to it,” said Zwolenski. “There were a few concerns about setting it up properly.”
The relocation effort also ties in to a second long-term project still on the council’s docket: the project to build a new station to house the North Smithfield Police Department.
Initial designs submitted by firm Weston & Sampson envisioned municipal court inside the new facility, highlighting reasons the current venue of Scouter’s Hall is not ideal.
Councilors must still decide how to move forward on that initiative after hearing estimates that constructing a new, modern facility to replace the current station on Smithfield Road would cost the town $18 million.
Municipal Buildings Task Force Chairperson Paul Nordstrom presented options this week that could see Weston & Sampson’s cost estimates reduced to around $15.5 million through changes to the proposed design plan, including the removal of municipal court. Whichever station plan is chosen will ultimately have to go before voters on the 2022 ballot.
Police Chief Tim Lafferty said that typically, between 80 and 100 people are scheduled to attend the monthly court sessions to answer traffic tickets and other infractions, and around 40 or 50 actually show up.
“I think it would be sufficient,” he said of the council chambers, noting that those answering summons can always be put off to a future session.
“We have the ability to kind of move it if we have a lot of people who receive tickets,” Lafferty said.
Concerns, the chief said, center around taking payments, as the court clerk needs a physical barrier at the cash window.
“It gets testy,” said Lafferty of taking court payments. “If there’s issues, we do have an officer stand by the window.”
Beauregard said Court Clerk Tafida Allen can attend the upcoming meeting on the relocation proposal.
“She can discuss with us what the pros and cons of this would be,” Beauregard said. “She can also, maybe, guide us as far as what we’re going to need.”
Lafferty noted that the sessions are recorded, and that a judge’s bench would also need to be installed.
“The state inspects and visits the municipal courts to make sure they’re set up the right way,” Lafferty said.
“It’s not as easy as I thought, but it can be done,” said Beauregard, adding of the potential location at 83 Greene St., “This is a nice setup.”
Alves noted that the town could easily install a panic button by the clerk, as well as an additional camera.
“I’m sure we can figure it out,” she said.