MUNICIPAL BENCH Appellate ruling says Girard must give court more funds

A magistrate ruled that the court should receive some additional funding.
GIRARD -- Girard's municipal judge will receive more money for his court operations this year, but not as much as he wanted.
Matthew O. Lamb, 11th District Court of Appeals magistrate, ruled today that the city of Girard did not adequately fund court operations this year. The case stems from a battle over court funding involving Judge Michael Bernard and city officials.
Judge Bernard ordered the city in November 2005 to increase its appropriation for court operations by $49,000. Council complied and later filed suit to get the money back.
The judge also ordered the city to increase appropriations to the court for 2006 to $905,454 after city council appropriated $600,000 for the court.
The magistrate ruled that the city should appropriate $780,000 to the court for fiscal year 2006 instead of the requested $905,454. The city's claim for reimbursement in the judge's 2005 order was dismissed for "failure to state a viable claim of action."
About the ruling
Lamb, in his ruling, said "regardless of whom the judge is, city council still has an obligation to fund the court sufficiently to enable the court to function properly."
The magistrate said the city failed to uphold its legal obligation to the court when it appropriated only $600,000 to the court based on the fact that the court only generated $600,000 the prior fiscal year.
He said the city should have appropriated more money, but added that some of that money would be offset because Judge Bernard abused his discretion by giving court employees a 9 percent raise during the 2006 fiscal year and by not cutting two members of his staff when the court's caseload began to drop, a move that would have saved $98,000 a year.
Judge Bernard, who was represented by Atty. John Juhasz of Boardman, said he could not respond to the magistrate's decision because either side may appeal and additional testimony would be forthcoming.
Mayor James Melfi said city leaders are pleased that the appellate court acknowledged that Judge Bernard should participate in the city's recovery from fiscal emergency. He said city leaders are happy that the magistrate saw that the total amount requested from the court was unreasonable.
Melfi, after discussing the matter with City Auditor Sam Zirafi, said the city could live with appropriating the court the $780,000 figure recommended by the magistrate. Melfi said it would be his recommendation not to appeal the ruling.
Attorneys for both sides have five days to appeal the decision to a three-judge panel at the appellate court.
Attorney's argument
During an appeals court hearing last week, Warren Atty. Frank Bodor, representing the city, argued that the judge demonstrated an unwillingness to cooperate with city leaders by failing to meet and discuss his budget requests.
Bodor also said the $600,000 appropriation was sufficient because the court has additional funds held in restricted accounts and the fact that court revenue had dropped.
Judge Bernard gave the magistrate a detailed explanation of each court employee's job, its relevance to daily court operations and the reason behind those pay increases given to court employees.
The judge said court employees accepted a pay freeze in 2002 and again in 2004, but he saw no decrease in city debt. Bernard said that after a statement by city officials suggesting that the city would be in fiscal emergency until 2012, he decided to calculate cost-of-living adjustments for his employees.

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