The Commonwealth Court has ruled that the president judge of the Bedford County Court of Common Pleas has no authority to withhold from the county treasury money in certain court-controlled funds, some of which was earmarked to reimburse the county for probation office payroll expenses.
County solicitors and municipal lawyers from across the state said the case demonstrates the unique relationship Pennsylvania courts and commissioners share as joint employers of certain county workers and how easily that relationship can sour in the absence of cooperation and communication from both sides.
In Board of Commissioners of Bedford County v. Ling, an en banc panel of the court, hearing the case in its original jurisdiction, granted summary relief to the Bedford County commissioners, finding that Bedford County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Thomas S. Ling overstepped his bounds when he directed that money from certain municipal funds be withheld from the county.
One of those funds, known as the “supervisory fund,” has traditionally been used to reimburse the county for payroll expenditures to the probation office that initially come out of the county’s general fund, Judge P. Kevin Brobson wrote for the court.
Those payroll payments cannot be made without the authorization of the president judge, but once the money is paid out of the general fund, it is supposed to be replenished by money from the supervisory fund, Brobson said.
Around 2007, according to Brobson, reimbursements from the supervisory fund began to lag, eventually prompting the county to cease making any more payroll payments from the general fund.
In response, Brobson said, Ling directed the county’s chief probation/parole officer (CPO) to stop issuing reimbursements from the supervisory fund, resulting in a nearly $250,000 shortfall in the general fund.
Ling subsequently issued an order directing the county treasurer to begin making probation office payroll payments directly from the supervisory fund, Brobson said.
However, according to Brobson, Ling had no statutory power to cut off reimbursements to the county for payroll expenditures he had already authorized.
“Because those expenses were incurred with the prior authorization and directive from the president judge of Bedford CCP, through the CPO, the county treasurer would be acting well within her lawful authority under Section 1102(a) to distribute existing monies within the supervisory fund to reimburse the county for that incurred expense,” Brobson said. “No second or further authorization from the president judge is necessary, and no act of President Judge Ling can revoke that authorization because the county has already incurred the authorized expense.”
Brobson was joined by President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judges Bernard L. McGinley, Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Mary Hannah Leavitt and Anne E. Covey.
Lancaster County Solicitor Crystal H. Clark, who was not involved in the Ling case, said her county has a system similar to Bedford County’s, in which certain fines, fees and costs are deposited into court-controlled accounts.
Clark said the court has the authority to direct disbursements from those funds and has typically been open with the county commissioners regarding how the money is used.
Still, some potentially thorny conversations have to occur from time to time, particularly during budget season each year, when the commissioners and the court must determine how much of those court-collected fines, fees and costs should be deposited into the county’s general fund, Clark said.
“From the county commissioners’ standpoint, they have an obligation—the way the system works right now—to fund services like adult probation, juvenile probation and parole, bail administration and domestic relations,” Clark said. “From their perspective, where some of those costs can be borne by or reimbursed by fees and fines collected by the courts, obviously they take the position that’s something that should occur in order to protect county taxpayers who would otherwise have to foot the bill.”
Clark said there is “a unique situation in Pennsylvania where the courts and the counties, for purposes of those employees, are deemed from a legal perspective to be joint employers.”
While Clark admitted negotiations over how court-controlled funds are disbursed “are not the easiest discussions to have by any stretch of the imagination,” she said both the court and the commissioners have been open to reaching an agreement.
Clark said that, judging by the Ling case, the problem in Bedford County appears to be that at least one side thought an agreement was in place and that the other side didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Counsel for the Bedford County commissioners, Clifford B. Levine at Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh, said the dispute in Ling came to a head when Ling issued the administrative order requiring payroll payments to be made directly from the supervisory fund.
Still, Levine said that while systems in which counties and courts share control of certain funds do raise interesting “separation of powers” questions, conflicts like the one in Ling appear to be rare.
“I don’t think it occurs that frequently because usually the courts and the commissioners can work it out,” Levine said.
Brobson, noting that Section 1102(a) of the Crime Victims Act gives president judges broad authority to direct the use of supervisory fund money, said the question of whether Ling has discretion to authorize payroll payments to the probation office was not at issue.
“What is at issue is whether that discretion may be exercised in a way that spends the same dollars two, three or four times over, leaving the taxpayers of the county on the hook for expenses that, at the direction of the president judge, should have been paid out of the supervisory fund,” Brobson said.
For years, according to Brobson, both Ling and his predecessor authorized payroll payments that, while initially being paid out of the general fund, were to ultimately come out of the supervisory fund.
Under that system, once those payments were authorized by the president judge, the county treasurer had the statutory authority to disburse money from the supervisory fund to cover the expenditures from the general fund.
“We see nothing in Section 1102 of the Crime Victims Act that authorizes a president judge, once the directive is given to use supervisory fund monies in a certain manner and once the county incurs the expense pursuant to that directive from the president judge, to hinder the county treasurer from disbursing monies from the supervisory fund in furtherance of that directive,” Brobson said.
The commissioners also challenged Ling’s authority to set the fee for attendees of the county’s Alcohol Highway Safety School and to order that the money, which had traditionally been deposited into the county’s DUI fund, be deposited into a new fund, separate from the county coffers, over which he and the CPO have sole control.
Brobson agreed with the commissioners that Ling had no power to withhold the safety school’s fees from the county treasury.
“The statutory duty ‘to establish and maintain’ an AHSS school lies either in the county, a multicounty judicial district, or a group of counties combined,” Brobson said, citing 75 Pa. C.S. § 1549(b)(1). “The duty does not lie with a judicial district that encompasses a single county, like the Bedford CCP. Thus, President Judge Ling, as the president judge of a single-county judicial district, lacks the authority to establish and maintain the Bedford County AHSS.”
Brobson also said that while the court has the statutory authority to collect AHSS fees, Ling had no authority to set the fee.
That power belongs exclusively to the county, according to Brobson.
“The only authority conferred by the statute and regulation on the president judge of a single-county judicial district under this program is the authority to appoint the DUI program coordinator,” which Ling has done, Brobson said.
The commissioners also took issue with Ling’s refusal to hand over funds they say are owed from the county’s fines/forfeiture fund.
Finding that Ling fails “to develop any argument in his brief in support as to why we should grant summary relief in his favor,” Brobson sided with the commissioners.
Brobson closed the opinion by saying the court did “not find it necessary to issue any order compelling President Judge Ling to act or to refrain from acting in a particular manner.”
“Instead, declaratory relief is sufficient to advise the parties with respect to their rights, duties and obligations under the laws of this commonwealth,” Brobson said. “To the extent the declaratory relief that we grant here informs President Judge Ling as to such matters, we have every expectation that he will choose to act in accord with the law as interpreted by this court.”
Brobson did, however, add in a footnote that Ling also has the option to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if he disagrees with the court’s ruling.
(Copies of the 17-page opinion in Board of Commissioners of Bedford County v. Ling, PICS No. 14-0852, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •