Judges aren't committing to an insurance contribution, but will talk about it.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Judges from Mahoning County Common Pleas Court will do what they can to help ease the county's anticipated budget crisis next year but won't compromise their ability to dispense justice.
That includes reviving discussion about possibly having court employees pay a portion of their health care insurance premiums, which judges shot down last year.
"I'm not saying we're going to have our employees do that, but I think it's certainly something that has to be explored," Judge John M. Durkin said.
After county voters narrowly defeated a 0.5 percent sales tax renewal Tuesday, county commissioners said the 2005 budget will have be drastically reduced from this year's levels.
Auditor George Tablack said the tax, which expires at midnight Dec. 31, brings in about $14 million a year. That accounts for about one-fourth of the county's total general fund revenue.
Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said commissioners "expect a battle" with judges over next year's funding levels. Unlike other elected officials, the courts have authority to order commissioners to fund them at certain levels.
Last year, commissioners were sued by judges Timothy P. Maloney of probate court and Theresa Dellick of juvenile court, who said their courts needed more money than commissioners had allocated them. The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the judges.
"I guess we'll just have to see where the judges stand and then go from there," Sherlock said.
Judge Dellick said she and her staff will meet with commissioners and work with them on developing next year's budget. Judge Maloney could not be reached to comment.
Last year, commissioners asked that all nonunion county employees begin paying 10 percent toward the cost of their insurance premiums. All of the common pleas judges, including those in the juvenile, probate and domestic relations courts, initially refused. They said it's up to the judges, not commissioners, to regulate pay for court employees.
Judge Beth A. Smith said Thursday that she eventually changed her mind and that her employees have been contributing, as have employees of the four area courts in Austintown, Boardman, Canfield and Sebring.
"I have worked with the judges in the past, and I'll do my best to continue that," Judge Smith said.
She said she sharply reduced the court's budget when she took office in 1997 and has held the line since then. "We're still at bare bones here because of those 1997 cuts," Judge Smith said.
Judge Durkin, spokesman for the five general division judges, said they will bring the issue back to the table for discussion when looking for ways to cut operating costs for next year. He said the judges are sensitive to the county's financial plight.
A financial forecast by the state auditor's office predicted that without the sales tax, the county will be in a $15 million hole by the end of next year. The projected deficit will balloon to more than $70 million in five years.
"There is not a lot of fluff as it relates to personnel," Judge Durkin said. "I don't see any areas where we can cut staff, but we're certainly willing to do anything we can to assist the commissioners."
Judge Durkin said he's hopeful that incoming commissioners John McNally IV and Anthony Traficanti, who take office next year, will soon be able to persuade voters to approve a sales tax and restore the lost revenue.
"Maybe the dark days might not last as long as they might have otherwise," he said.