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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with contact information for the Beaufort Magistrate Court location in Bluffton and the start date of new operations.
If you get a ticket for speeding or drinking on the beach on Hilton Head, you won’t be able to make your case to a judge on the island starting Feb. 1.
The Hilton Head Municipal Court was dissolved by the town council Nov. 7, a move officials said reflected a drop in the number of citations, the corresponding drop in revenue and the loss of the island’s only municipal judge.
That means as of Feb. 1 you’ll have to drive across the bridge to Bluffton if you want to fight misdemeanor traffic, criminal, municipal ordinance and parking violation tickets, according to Hilton Head staff attorney Brian Hulbert.
Maureen Coffey, the former Hilton Head municipal judge, did not renew her contract with the town and chose to return to private practice in July. The vacancy meant the town could either choose a new judge or dissolve the court.
Ultimately, council decided to dissolve the court because “traffic and criminal citations issued by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office have steadily declined since 2007, decreasing by approximately 75 percent,” according to town staff’s recommendation.
“Our mission is not to produce revenue,” Capt. Bob Bromage, spokesperson for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, told The Island Packet. “We’re not quota-based. We respond to the shifting needs of the community.”
Hulbert said the Beaufort Magistrate Court location in Bluffton agreed to hear all cases in an memorandum signed Jan. 4.
According to town financial reports, “this change will save the town approximately $197,000 per year.”
The decrease in citations means the court has been operating at a deficit for “several years,” even after staff cuts and a reduction in operating hours, according to the town memo.
The municipal court reported $164,849 in total revenue from fees and fines in fiscal year 2018, according to the most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report available. In that same year, the court reported $370,092 in total operating costs for the department.
Those figures are down from fiscal year 2017, where the municipal court reported $210,243 in total revenue and $413,928 in expenses.
The last time court revenues exceeded expenses was in fiscal year 2009, when revenue was reported as $407,422 and expenses were $402,797.
Staffing and hours
The court was operating with one full-time and one part-time employee in September, down from the four employees it typically staffed.
In 2016, the court cut its hours down to save money, only operating Tuesday through Thursday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., per the town website.
According to court data obtained from the town, there were 3854 criminal, traffic and municipal court dispositions in the island’s municipal court in fiscal year 2018.
That’s down from 4996 in 2017.
Although Hulbert said most people pay any fines they owe online, the change will affect everyone who chooses to contest their ticket — locals and tourists alike.
For information about court dates or other court matters, call (843) 255-5610.