By NICOLE ANTONUCCI
TOWN OF AMSTERDAM -- With more retail growth, comes more sales tax revenue and variety for shoppers.
But it also brings more traffic and criminal activity -- a statement town Justice Herbert Menge can attest to, based on the increasing number of cases he has to handle each week.
Over the past 20 years, the town has experienced significant retail growth, with stores such as Walmart, Target and Kohls popping up along Route 30. While growth provides a financial benefit to the town, it has also created more opportunities for larceny, as well as increased traffic accidents.
On Thursday, more than 20 people appeared in the town court; half of them for petit larceny, and the other half for traffic fines.
While some were given leniency, others were sent to jail.
"We average 10 to 12 petit larcenies a court night," Menge said. "Tonight we have nine petit larcenies and one grand larceny, and tonight is a quiet night."
In addition, the court averages 25 traffic cases a night, as well as other cases, such as civil cases or criminal cases.
Menge, who has been a justice for approximately 21 years, said cases involving the use of bad checks, which used to be the most frequent, have become obsolete with the use of technology.
But it's quite the opposite when it comes to thefts.
"With every store that comes to town, there is more opportunity," Menge said. "In the town of Florida or the town of Glen, they don't have a lot of retail, so they don't deal with a lot of criminal activity."
Judge Deborah Slezak, the other town judge, agrees there has been an increase in the number of larceny cases that have appeared before her.
"I have seen an increase over the years that I have been a town justice," she said, but added that the motivating factor is primarily drugs.
Menge agreed, stating that the majority of repeat shoplifting offenders do so to support a drug habit.
"The biggest percentage do it to support their drug habit. Some people steal because they stole in the past, and got away with it," Menge said. "I have never gotten someone in here that said, 'I had to steal a pound of bologna and a loaf of bread to feed my children.'"
The increase in cases has put a burden on the justices, as well as the court clerk, who are part-time employees with the town.
Menge said that the court clerk does the majority of the work. In addition to the court cases, new state mandates require the town court to handle DNA processing fees, filing traffic tickets and more.
"Sometimes she brings work home with her if she can't get it done," Menge said.
Court clerk Debra Szwarnowicz confirmed that her hours have increased.
In addition to the town court, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has been impacted as well.
"There is significantly more traffic," Sheriff Michael Amato said. "When the growth was first beginning, there were accidents left and right. People were not used to the increased traffic, or how wide the road was to cross over."
Amato said that one of his road patrol deputies is tied to the Route 30 corridor because of the amount of traffic accidents and criminal reports they must respond to.
"Between larcenies and accidents, and other related incidents because of all the traffic up there, it keeps us very busy," Amato said.
In 2011, Amato said, there were 102 reported cases of larcenies in the Route 30 area. In 2012 the number increased to 166 cases, and jumped again in 2013 with 242 cases. So far this year, there were 55 cases reported.
"It's only the first quarter of the year," Amato said. "If we keep going at this rate, we will have 200 cases easy."
The number of motor vehicle accidents have stabilized the past three years, hovering in the 60s mark. So far this year, 22 car accidents have been reported, Amato said.
"It's stabilizing, because a lot of the locals who drive there every day know the roads," Amato said.
None of the data includes cases handled by state police. However, the state police was unable to provide data, officials said when contacted this week.
The activity has increased so much that Amato said he plans on upgrading the substation in Hagaman so he can station more deputies close by, instead of deputies having to drive back to the department in Glen.
The plan is to upgrade the station with the latest technology, including proper fingerprinting equipment.
"We are hoping with in the next year or so to get another computer for down there in that system, so we can do the work down there, too. It would save us a lot more in terms of traveling and gas, maintenance on the cars, time out of the zone. I will see what I can do," Amato said.
Town Supervisor Thomas DiMezza said while there has been an increase to court cases, it has not had a significant impact on the town or the budget.
"There may be more people in court, but we have two judges," he said. "There has been no impact on the budget whatsoever. We manage."
He said the growth has had a positive impact on the property taxes and the sales taxes.
"We share the percentage with other towns in the county," he said. "It has been a good thing."
He added that if the judges need additional help, they have the ability to hire another clerk.
"Right now I don't see that as a problem. The case load may have gone up but they seem to be able to handle it very well," DiMezza said. "No one has approached me."
Slezak agreed that growth was a benefit to the town, but there were downsides.
"There is a lot of retail and as a consequence, sadly there are people that do go and shoplift."
Slezak and Menge said that most of the shoplifting occurs at the larger box stores which have stricter security protocols, and as a result, more people get caught.
"What is surprising is the amount of employees that get caught with grand larcenies," Menge said.
He added that it's not just locals who are getting caught. Groups from other areas such as Albany or Utica have come to the area, and the items being stolen vary.
"I had two kids who stole a basketball and a football. Why?" Menge asked. "Most of the time its because they haven't gotten caught."
While the district attorney sets the punishment, Menge said it makes his job more difficult when he sentences them.
"If they steal $50 worth of stuff, it doesn't pay for them to go to jail, because it would cost us more to keep them there. However, sometimes I have no choice but to send them to jail because they keep coming back for the same thing," he said. "If I give them a fine, they need months to pay it back. I [sentence] a lot of community service."
And more growth is coming down the pipeline. According to DiMezza, several residential developments have been approved in town as well as another retail store near Lowes.
St. Mary's Hospital is planning to build an oncology center and a new eye surgery center has opened in town.
"These all bring people into town and that is a good thing because they shop the stores and go to the restaurants," DiMezza said. "And we have more room to grow. We are doing okay."