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Merrillville Council votes 4-3 to close town court

 Merrillville Town Judge Eugene Velazco speaks prior to the town council's Oct. 11 vote to close the Merrillville Town Court.
screenshot from YouTube meeting video
Merrillville Town Judge Eugene Velazco speaks prior to the town council's Oct. 11 vote to close the Merrillville Town Court.

The Merrillville Town Council narrowly voted this week to close the town court, but a number of questions remain. In a four-to-three vote, council members passed an ordinance to start transferring the caseload to the Lake Superior Court system, without setting a specific closure date.

Council President Rick Bella blamed the closure on financial concerns, saying the court has cost the town over $1.7 million since 2012 and almost $400,000 last year alone. "And I think the issue here is not being mean to anybody. It's not personal for this judge, that's for sure, because a lot of these negatives are well before he was actually the judge," Bella added.

But court administrator Chanda Flowers blamed the decrease in revenue on out-of-date ordinances and a decrease in tickets being written by police. "Now, I challenge you as leaders because at no point have we came to the table and sat down to really figure out what could possibly be done in order to make this court successful," Flowers told council members.

Town Judge Eugene Velazco urged council members to consider not just the cost of running the court but also the cost of closing it, noting that a similar process in Hammond cost more than $700,000. "Even if they pass the ordinance, the court will remain open until such time as all the cases are transferred. It is estimated that that will take over two years," Velazco noted.

Meanwhile, the Merrillville Community School Corporation reiterated its concern that the closure of the town court would mean the end of the truancy court program. Director of student services, diversity, equity and inclusion Candace Lillie noted that 250 cases were handled by the truancy court program last school year.

"Without the court, that's 250 kids that may potentially fall through the cracks," Lillie said.

Council members Donald Spann, Margaret Uzelac and Leonard White voted against the closure. "We have come quite far. We have way over 40,000 people, and I'm sure we could find some way to keep this court open," Uzelac said.

Council member White was concerned that closing the court would make it more difficult for those who'd have to travel outside the town, especially older residents.

Judge Velazco also raised concerns with the ordinance adoption itself, noting that council members never explicitly amended the ordinance presented over the summer but also didn't start over with a first reading.