Who belink-ed first?

YOUNGSTOWN — Judge Mark A. Belinky received an additional $200,000 from the county’s general fund to settle his lawsuit against the Mahoning County commissioners, but other county department heads said they’ll try to live within the budgets commissioners initially gave them for this year.

“I’m going to try to live within the budget that the commissioners have given me,” said Judge Beth Smith of the county’s Domestic Relations Court, whose general fund budget allocation was $790,000, down from last year’s expenditures of $861,862.

Judge Smith said she asked for $900,000 for this year before the recession deepened last fall. She spoke after Thursday’s 2-1 decision by the county commissioners to give Judge Belinky the settlement that raised his general fund budget for this year from $694,833 to $894,833. The probate court spent $762,859 from that fund in 2008. The general fund is the county’s main operating fund.

The extra $200,000 for this year settled a mandamus lawsuit Judge Belinky had filed in the 7th District Court of Appeals to enforce his demand for the $915,715 he said was necessary for proper operation of his court.

The extra money for probate court came from the general fund administration category, a broad budget category that includes payments to the 7th District Court of Appeals, unemployment and Workers’ Compensation costs and health insurance costs.

“I understand the economic crisis in our community and in our country, and I am trying to keep all expenditures under wrap. I’m trying to live with this budget, but quite frankly, it’s been very, very difficult,” Judge Smith said.

“We are watching the necessity for every expenditure,” including keeping travel expenses for her 12-member staff to a minimum, she said.

Domestic Relations Court Administrator Mary Lou McDonald said the office is watching supply and equipment expenses closely, including deferring purchase of an $800 to $900 paper shredder.

Judge Smith said she will use a special-projects fund derived from court filing fees to cover the shortfall in general fund money this year.

“We will continue to operate within the budget that we’ve been given,” said Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy clerk of courts. “We understood that we needed to make concessions. We made concessions, and we’ll move on from there,” she said.

In the clerk’s office, all union and management employees will take nine unpaid floating holidays this year as an austerity measure. Three vacant positions are being left unfilled in the clerk’s downtown office, Welsh said.

The clerk’s office got $1.6 million from the general fund this year, compared to the $1,779,839 it spent last year.

“I would never sue them for my budget,” said Lisa Antonini, county treasurer. She said she has told the commissioners that “we would do what was best in terms of making the budget work.”

“We’re going to make do with what we have. Our office has instituted a rolling holiday,” to reduce costs, she said. In May, each employee began taking an unpaid day off every two weeks, and that will continue through January, she said. The only exception was this summer’s four-week property tax collection period, she added.

The treasurer’s office uses other funds to compensate for its losses in the general fund, she said. One such fund is the delinquent tax assessment fund, which derives 2.5 cents from the state for every delinquent tax dollar the local treasurer’s office collects. The treasurer’s office derives other monies from tax-lien sale fees.

Antonini said she doubts the settlement with Judge Belinky will create a domino effect of other officeholders saying “me, too.”

“I think officeholders are reasonable individuals. I think that they’ve made the cuts that they have had to make to make their office work to fit within the budget constraints that have been placed upon them,” she said.

The treasurer’s office, which has 14 employees, initially asked for $620,000 from the general fund, but got $500,000 for this year. Last year’s general fund spending was $530,089.

“We’re trying to live within the finances the commissioners gave us this year,” said Noralynn Palermo, county recorder, whose office has seven employees and hasn’t hired anyone since 2000. However, she said she may have to ask the commissioners for more money to run her office.

She said she’s saving money by not paying her $2,600 dues to the state recorders’ association, a sum she expects to divert into salaries for her staff. “I would rather see my staff paid than my recorder’s dues paid,” she said.

Palermo said she uses filing-fee income to compensate for losses in her general fund allocation.

In the wake of the extra $200,000 going to the probate court, she said: “I’m concerned that what’s going to happen is that offices like this and other offices are going to have to have layoffs to fund probate court and all the other courts.” As many as three layoffs are possible in her office this year, she said.

The recorder’s office got $380,000 this year from the general fund, compared to the $400,957 it spent last year.

The recorder’s office contributes more to the general fund than it takes out of the general fund, she observed. Last year, it put $729,718 into the general fund from filing fees, she noted.

“The courts, by law, are a priority spending item. The commissioners ought to make sure that the courts are adequately funded and then deal with the rest of the county,” Judge Belinky said.

As for what other functions of county government might suffer because of the extra money going to the probate court, Commissioner John A. McNally IV said: “I think that’s still going to play itself out as we go through the rest of the year.”

“I am a little bit concerned about a domino effect,” from the probate court settlement, especially among other courts, said McNally, who was the only commissioner to vote against the settlement of Judge Belinky’s lawsuit.

But McNally noted that the county Veterans Service Commission helps the county by annually returning $400,000 to $500,000 in unspent veterans’ benefits money to the general fund at the end of September.

Judge Lou A. D’Apolito, presiding judge of the general division of the county common pleas court, said he believes the commissioners will fund his court’s budget request.

“I’m assuming that, after they review the budget, which is not much of an increase over the last few years, that they’ll pay without us having to proceed further,” he added.

As to whether the general division judges will go to court to enforce their budget judgment entry, Judge D’Apolito said: “I’m not even going to speculate because I really believe that they will pay it. They will provide the funding.”

All five general division judges signed a judgment entry in April, in which they demanded $2,399,269 from the general fund, which exceeds the $2.1 million the commissioners allocated for 2009. The court spent $2,352,520 from the general fund in 2008.

Commissioner David N. Ludt and County Administrator George J. Tablack did not respond to a request for comment.

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