WHILE IT has been in existence for only about three weeks, due to the distressed state of county finances left behind by previous government, the newly formed Luzerne County Council now faces a most daunting task. The 11 members of council must find a way to both live up to their recent oaths of office and find a solution to the budget crisis that stems largely from the legacy of a $415 million debt burden which, for all practical purposes, has put a stranglehold on council's ability to adequately fund the courts and other branches and departments of government.
A review of the budget covering the past four years readily demonstrates how and why the county finances are strained to the point of a projected slashing of $4.7 million from the court budget for 2012 while, at the same time, not making any increased allocation for county-mandated union raises for court-related employees. Those raises amount to approximately $400,000.
The allocations for county debt service have escalated from a mere $1,025,362 paid in 2008, to the payment of $4,282,177 in 2010, to the projected sum of $24,799,064 for 2012. It is obvious that the strategy of structuring the county's debt by paying down minimal sums in earlier years and obligating the county to pay larger sums in outlying years lies at the heart of its fiscal problems. Perhaps there was an expectation that there would have been an economic recovery and that the county's tax base would have expanded to absorb higher debt service; regardless, it is a fact that the strategy has failed.
The overall impact of this failed strategy has resulted in a budget plan that, in effect, drains revenues from what would otherwise be allocated to meet ordinary operating expenses of county government and channels same to meet the county's burgeoning debt service. The limitations that this approach will place on the courts and county government overall pose a serious problem this year, which will only worsen over the next several years.
Article 1 Section 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides, in pertinent part, "All courts shall be open; and every man for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law…" This is a mandate that is binding upon Luzerne County, and the law requires that county government must meet "the reasonable necessity standard" with respect to funding the courts.
It is clear that the members of county council and transition team members have worked tirelessly and steadfastly toward the goal of effectuating a smooth transition into the new year. At the same time, it's equally clear that the court, including its six new judges, have likewise prepared diligently and worked unceasingly to enable the court to maintain its busy docket and also to pursue the ongoing goal of restoring public trust and confidence in our court system.
There has never been a time when it's been more important for the Luzerne County court to not "take a step backward." Inadequate resources that would prevent the court from meeting its demanding caseload, as well as from maintaining "due process standards," will both jeopardize public safety and invite further scandal. The civil, criminal and family court caseloads in Luzerne County are generally above average as compared to the 10 other third-class counties in Pennsylvania. Our budget needs of $24,412,289 are very much in line with the court expenditures in those same counties, and, in several instances, fall well below them on a proportional basis. The importance to its citizens of a county meeting the constitutional mandates of a fair and effective court system cannot be overemphasized.
In addition, there likely will be adverse consequences to the residents of Luzerne County, both tangibly and intangibly, if the courts are not adequately funded. Specifically, the ability to maintain operations in Treatment Court, the Day Reporting Center, the Mortgage Foreclosure Diversionary Program and plans to create a Veterans' Court would be severely hampered.
Estimates are that the Day Reporting Program has saved the county $1.9 million over the past 12 months – easily calculated when one realizes the average daily cost of monitoring (and rehabilitating) a criminal offender in that program is $33 compared to $94 to incarcerate that same person. The tangible savings with respect to reducing recidivism and incarceration costs among graduates of the county's Treatment Court Program computes to some $4 million savings since the program started. These are programs that were designed and funded with objectives of generating cost savings to the county while, at the same time, enhancing the delivery of justice.
Any effort to adequately fund the court system must be paralleled with adequate funding and staffing to meet the needs of indigent representation according to constitutional standards, which is a direct obligation of the county, and to also meet the needs of county offices that support the courts including the sheriff, security and the Office of Judicial Records and Services.
The plain fact is that misfeasance or nonfeasance on the part of the county to adequately support those functions also would jeopardize public safety and create financial exposure for the county. Consider that a single incident involving a protection from abuse order, PFA, not served by the sheriff in a timely fashion that results in serious harm to a victim in the interim would be one too many and, moreover, could very well result in significant financial liability for the county.
In conclusion, while the court is continuing its effort toward cost containment in its operations and will continue to explore creative revenue enhancements with a goal toward helping solve the county's budget dilemma, it fairly appears that the under-funding of the courts and court-related operations poses a gap that must be addressed urgently. Unless council sees fit to take prompt and decisive action to close that gap, the court will have little recourse but to pursue a legal remedy.