Budget transfer OK looks unlikely

Last updated: May 19. 2014 11:41PM - 2704 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

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Ninety Luzerne County court employees still haven’t received raises announced last month, and the matter may have to be settled in court.

After weeks of meetings and exchanged documents, the court and administration are standing firm in their conflicting interpretations of the county’s home rule charter regarding pay raises, officials say.

County Manager Robert Lawton won’t sign paperwork allowing the raises in the payroll system because the charter says the judiciary can’t transfer budget funds under its direct control to increase salaries or create new positions.

At least one budget transfer is needed to move court administration savings to court stenographers to fund raises in that department.

Under the charter, County Council would have to vote on a budget transfer needed to provide court raises, said county Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri.

Council majority approval for court raises is unlikely. The 210 non-union employees outside court branches are not receiving raises at this time and also have gone six years without increases.

Several council members also have argued non-union raises should be decided as part of the 2015 budget because this year’s budget increased taxes 8 percent and furloughed workers.

Opposing viewpoint

Court officials have a different take on the charter’s power over their raises.

They say budget transfer approval does not apply to the courts because state law gives them sole authority over how their budgeted funds are spent, as long as they don’t exceed the overall roughly $25 million allocated by the county for all court branches.

County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky said the county administration is free to format budget categories any way it wants for coding and tracking purposes, but the resulting budget transfers can’t be used as a basis to “micromanage” the court’s decision to use $133,795 in salary savings to fund raises.

The charter itself says court administration includes court reporters, judicial staff and employees in magisterial courts, probation and domestic relations, he said.

“The status of law in Pennsylvania is such that once the county allocates funding, it’s up to the court to decide how to spend those funds appropriately for the administering of justice,” Shucosky said.

Other court issues

This isn’t the first time court-related charter interpretation conflicts have surfaced since the home rule government took effect in January 2012.

Citizens regularly complain the courts are not following the council-adopted personnel and ethics codes but say they don’t have the time and money to file a legal challenge.

Court officials have maintained they follow their own codes and protocol governing personnel and ethics because the judiciary is an independent branch under state law, which supersedes the charter.

The charter doesn’t provide a definitive resolution.

It says the county judiciary shall be subject to the county’s codes and policies, including those governing ethics and personnel.

However, this requirement is prefaced by charter wording saying compliance is required only “to the extent it does not interfere with the inherent and constitutional rights and powers possessed by the Judiciary to do all things as are reasonably necessary for the administration of justice.”

Some charter critics had argued home rule’s power over the judiciary was overstated, possibly to gain more support from voters to switch to a new government. Charter advocates said home rule set realistic standards with the expectation some may be challenged at some point.

Outside clarification is warranted on what authority council and the manager have over the court, but even well-intentioned litigation seeking a home rule interpretation ruling can turn sour, Shucosky said.

“We’re trying very hard to not get involved in a fight,” he said.

Lawton said neither side is taking an adversarial approach, though he will not ignore the charter budget transfer wording to allow the court raises. When the subject of court raises came up at a recent council committee meeting, Lawton said the administration “would be happy to see this as a test case in court.”

“I think we are all approaching this from a friendly point of view. If this ends up being litigated, it does not have to be hostile,” Lawton said Monday.

Court officials show no signs of withdrawing the request for raises and want to pay the workers retroactively from the time the increases were announced last month, which is now two paychecks ago.

Shucosky has cited salary increases and other benefits provided to union workers over the past six years as partial justification for the non-union court raises, saying some court supervisors are earning “considerably less” than the union employees they oversee.

The morale of the county workforce is at an “all-time low,” with trained and efficient non-union employees leaving for other positions outside county government on a regular basis, he said.

Shucosky said court officials are prudent with the county allocation and will not seek an overall budget increase next year to fund salaries or any rising expenses. A recent audit showed the courts ended 2012 spending $600,000 below budget, he said.

“We also anticipate a surplus in 2013,” he said.

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