Luzerne County Councilman Stephen J. Urban’s proposed 2016 budget cuts in court branches would “cripple the justice system at all levels,” a court official said.
The county administration requested $28.6 million for court branches next year — an increase of $814,445 from this year’s allocation —when the proposed budget was submitted to the council in October.
A council majority voted last month on a budget amendment decreasing the requested allocation by $405,000.
Court officials haven’t objected to those cuts, but county Court Administrator Michael Shucosky told the council the additional $1.148 million in reductions proposed by Urban would prevent the court from fulfilling its requirement to administer justice.
“Council is well aware of the mandate to fund the justice system,” Shucosky wrote in an email to the council.
It’s unclear if a council majority will support Urban’s proposal. The council will discuss his proposal and other budget amendments Tuesday and must adopt a budget on Dec. 15 to comply with the home rule charter deadline.
The council can avoid a proposed 8-percent tax hike without Urban’s suggested court cuts by shelving the depositing of millions of dollars in a reserve to help speed up elimination of the county deficit.
The court allocation covers most staff and other expenses for county Court of Common Pleas judges and 16 district judge offices in addition to probation services, court reporters and domestic relations.
Shucosky said some of the increase is necessary to fund rising health insurance costs throughout county government.
“I am unaware of any proposal for any other division to have these items eliminated in this manner. It would not be prudent fiscal planning to do this,” he wrote.
Urban’s proposal to reduce wages in magisterial district judge offices would be “ill advised” because the 50 employees in these offices are unionized and awaiting a new contract through binding arbitration, he said. A decision is expected in early 2016, and any award will be retroactive to the Jan. 1, 2015, contract expiration, he said.
“It is unrealistic to expect no award, especially when prior county contracts have included increases routinely,” Shucosky wrote.
A proposed $588,320 reduction in court administration wages “appears to be simply an arbitrary decision” and would result in the furloughing of 10 to 15 of the 76 employees who “work directly with the core responsibilities to administer justice,” he wrote.
“Finally, I ask that it be taken into consideration that the courts have each year lived within its budget, have already reduced staff significantly, and have worked closely with administration to streamline services, limit expenses, and increase productivity,” Shucosky wrote.
In an email response to Shucosky, Urban said tough decisions must be made because the county is broke.
Urban, who will wrap up his council term at the end of this month, maintained the court staffing levels, compensation and benefits are higher than those in many other similarly-sized third-class counties. He also said his colleagues should not be intimidated by a potential suit by the courts over budget cuts.
“It’s about preserving life as a whole in Luzerne County and allowing all people in Luzerne County to reinvest in themselves and their families, not just your own,” Urban wrote. “You all in the courts make more than the average residents, and people are tired of funding and supporting inefficiency and dysfunction.”