MAHONING COUNTY Judge raises the bar in fight over money to run his court
If commissioners don't come up with more money soon, a lawsuit will be filed against them in court.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Lawyers for Judge Timothy P. Maloney of Mahoning County Probate Court sent a last-chance letter to county commissioners, telling them to follow his order and cough up more money for the court -- or else.
Judge Maloney also told commissioners to back off a plan to begin withholding copayments for health insurance benefits from his employees.
If they don't comply soon, they'll be sued in the Ohio Supreme Court, said Atty. John B. Juhasz. Judge Maloney appointed Juhasz and Atty. Mary Jane Stephens to represent him.
Judge Maloney declined to comment but wrote in a court entry that he'd asked Prosecutor Paul Gains in late December to pick a side in the budget battle. When he did not get a response from Gains, the judge appointed his own lawyers.
"We'll represent the commissioners," Gains said Wednesday. "I seriously believe there is no money available."
Judge Maloney submitted an order Dec. 17, compelling commissioners to provide him with $922,196 for this year's probate court budget. But when commissioners approved the budget two days later, the probate court was listed to get $750,000.
Commissioners said they reduced every office by about 20 percent from last year's budget because of fiscal restraints brought on largely by the sluggish economy.
The county's general fund gets more than half its revenue from a pair of 0.5-percent sales taxes. But with people spending less money, the tax revenue has grown stagnant.
Commissioners also have said the economy has caused a $3 million decrease in investment interest.
"We're not responsible for the state of the economy," said Commissioner Ed Reese when told of the letter. "The economy dictates our budget. I don't know what else to say."
Juhasz says in his letter that the issue of court funding has been "convincingly decided" by higher courts in the past. Judges have authority to set their budgets and demand that they be met. It's up to commissioners as the funding authority to provide the money.
The letter doesn't give commissioners a time limit for compliance, but Juhasz said the window is small. A lawsuit will be filed as soon as he and Stephens can get it prepared.
"If they comply before we finish the complaint, we won't file it," he said. "But I think that by their budget resolution, they've given their intent to not comply."
Because commissioners ignored Judge Maloney's budget order, a lawsuit would include "allegations of bad faith" against them and ask that the commissioners, not taxpayers, be made to personally pay Judge Maloney's legal expenses.
"It's frustrating to have a judge do this when we all know that the money just is not there," said Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock. "It's time to start dealing with reality."
Juhasz also wrote that the commissioners' recent announcement that they will begin deducting insurance copayments from all nonunion employees later this month infringes on Judge Maloney's authority to "fix compensation and the emoluments of office."
He said the court, in its 2003 budget, set aside enough money to pay its employees' health insurance premiums. The letter says Judge Maloney does not authorize any deduction from his staff's salaries other than those required by law, such as withholding taxes.
Gary Kubic, county administrator, said it's Judge Maloney, not commissioners, who is being unreasonable in suggesting that his employees should be treated differently from all other county workers.
"Copayment is the right thing to do," Kubic said. "One hundred percent hospitalization without employee copayment is a thing of the past."
Reese said commissioners aren't asking other officials to do anything different from what commissioners have done themselves, such as absorbing budget cuts and implementing copayments.