Three months ago, then Mahoning County Auditor George J. Tablack issued a warning about county government's fiscal crisis that should have been a wake-up call for all public employees: "I need to make this clear: We will not be out of the woods until at least Dec. 3, 2006."
Unfortunately, judges of the common pleas court general division hit the snooze button and ignored Tablack, who has since moved to Palm Beach County, Fla.
On Aug. 5, the court's administrative judge, Maureen A. Cronin, signed an order granting 3 percent pay raises for 30 employees -- court administrator, assignment office and jury commission staff, magistrates, bailiffs, secretaries and court stenographers.
The pay-raise paperwork was submitted to the county auditor's office just one day after commissioners David Ludt, Anthony Traficanti and John A. McNally IV approved a $361,600 additional appropriation for the general division court to enable it to operate to the end of the year.
Ludt, Traficanti and McNally insist they had no idea the judges were granting pay raises to the 30 employees. Judge Cronin counters the raises were included in the court's budget request and that the commissioners were told about them during budget hearings.
Is past prologue?
Nonetheless, the commissioners last week rescinded the $361,600 allocation. But if past muscle-flexing by the local judiciary is any indication, the judges will issue an order demanding restoration of the money.
We would urge Ludt, Traficanti and McNally to stand firm and not give in to the court's bullying.
Officeholders who have the temerity to grant raises to public employees when the county has had to refinance $7.3 million in debt payments to keep the jail operating deserve to be publicly tarred and feathered.
Mahoning County is barely keeping its financial head above water and the commissioners have appealed to all departments to hold the line on spending. Most have shown the kind of responsible behavior taxpayers are now demanding of government, but it seems the courts continue to replicate fantasyland. The judges and their employees need a reality check.
We are well aware that the judiciary invariably wins budget battles because the Ohio Supreme Court has granted judges dictatorial powers when it comes to determining how much money they need to operate. But that does not mean the commissioners should rollover for them.
There have been layoffs in county government, a federal judge is putting the squeeze on the commissioners and the sheriff with regard to the operation of the county jail and there are agencies, such as the board of elections, that have legitimate needs for more money to provide services mandated by state and federal laws.
Indigent defense fund
Indeed, in May when Tablack warned that the fiscal crisis would not end this year and would continue through 2006, it was anticipated that the common pleas court would need more money for its indigent defense fund. Pay raises for court employees were not on the table at the time.
The judges had initially requested $2.2 million, but were granted $1.75 million. The commissioners subsequently increased the allocation after the county's general fund was bolstered with the $7.3 million that was borrowed to operate the jail and $1.7 million in additional revenue from real estate taxes, sales tax, interest income and final payments from the federal government for prisoners who were housed in the county jail.
How did the judges show their appreciation for such generosity? By boosting the salaries of their employees, thereby thumbing their noses at the commissioners and the taxpayers. Such arrogance of power must not go unchallenged.
Ludt, Traficanti and McNally are absolutely right in taking back the $361,600. Let the judges show the public how black-robe fever has affected their thinking.