By Justin Strawser and Francis Scarcella
The Daily Item
SUNBURY — Two Northumberland County commissioners blasted a Centre County senior judge — with one calling him “a leech on the taxpayers” — for an opinion the judge released Thursday that said county row officers deserve their salaries and a plan to reduce their pay was unjust.
Commissioners Steve Bridy and Vinny Clausi also vowed once again to reduce row officer salaries by 50 percent despite what Senior Judge David E. Grine said in his opinion.
The salary reductions and increase in benefit co-pays would cause “serious harm” to the office holders, the judge said in a 15-page opinion after a review of testimony from a hearing last year.
“The reference in the testimony that suggested that a public servant was little more than an hourly worker in the service industry not only suggests profound ignorance of the responsibilities of the office, but a lack of full appreciation of American history — a history which, unique to other countries in the world, rests solely on the blood and sweat of public servants,” Grine said.
Bridy and Clausi were not happy with the opinion.
“What makes these elected officials better than their constituents who don’t benefit from the same salaries, benefits and pensions as they do?” Bridy asked. “Many of those who fought for this great nation can’t afford their tax bill and this double-dipping judge wants to keep the status quo to protect his pension. He is a leech on the taxpayers and his opinion is to protect the other elected officials that are doing the same thing.”
Clausi said he heard about the opinion but said he couldn’t care less.
We’ll do it again
“He is a politician protecting other politicians,” Clausi said. “It doesn’t matter what his opinion is because we are going to do this again and we will continue to fight to save the taxpayers of this county. Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for all these high salaries and insurances? Why should the taxpayers suffer because politicians want to make all this money? Let the taxpayer alone. The judge obviously wants them to keep footing the bill.”
In his opinion, the judge said the county code was enacted to offer guidance to local governments, but it was also intended to provide protection to public servants.
Furthermore, Grine said the fact that the commissioners left the salary and benefits of the county controller alone meant that “the application of whatever logic accompanies the salary reduction was obviously skewed.”
“The parties right to relief on the salary reductions is clear, the salaries for everyone were reduced in October 2013 save for one man — the county controller. His salary represented a stand-alone constant in a world of tumultuous change,” he said.
Provisions in the county code state that “any salary increase shall be on a percentage basis and applied equally to all county officials.”
The health benefits after the proposed cuts would have differed from those afforded to other employees in the county, and the commissioners were not complying with the law, Grine said.
Commissioner Rick Shoch agreed with Grine.
Shoch: Lack of fairness
“The result is the only logical result that the judge could have come to. However, the point that I hope is impressed on the public is how an impartial judge from outside of Northumberland County sees the Clausi/Bridy brand of county government administration,” Shoch said. “His opinion recognizes in our county government the lack of fundamental fairness, justice and equal protections that Americans outside of Northumberland County take for granted. Northumberland County citizens need to think about this as we head into the 2015 election year, and remember to cast a vote that will ensure that they can enjoy the same freedoms, rights and protections that other American citizens enjoy.
“It is time this county resembled America, rather than a third-world dictatorship ruled by one man and his toadie.”
In November, row officers won the first round in the fight to prevent their salaries from being cut up to 48 percent and having their health care contributions increased to 50 percent of the county cost.
After the two-hour hearing, Grine granted a temporary injunction preventing the cuts in response to a lawsuit filed by Coroner James F. Kelley, Register and Recorder Mary Zimmerman, Sheriff Chad Reiner and Treasurer Kevin Gilroy against the county.
Bridy and Clausi voted for the cuts in October while Shoch opposed the changes.
Row officers were represented by Samuel Stretton, of West Chester. Solicitor Frank Garrigan and assistant solicitor John Muncer represented the county.
During the hearing, Kelley, Zimmerman, Gilroy, Bridy, Shoch, then-controller Tony Phillips and human resources director Joseph Picarelli, who provided salary and insurance cost information, were all called to testify. Clausi was not present for the hearing.
Shoch testified that no studies were conducted before the proposed reductions were approved.
Bridy and Clausi voted to cut the commissioners salaries, too, from $61,000 to $31,500.
Under their plan, the coroner’s salary would have dropped from $53,834 to $30,500, the prothonotary’s and register and recorder’s salaries from $57,396 to $31,000, and sheriff’s and treasurer’s from $53,834 to $31,000.
The change in health care contributions would have increased the monthly rates from $108 to $348 for the single plan; $175 to $694 for a two-party plan; and $241 to $873 for a family.
$1.4 million in savings
Clausi and Bridy estimated savings in salary and benefits at $1.4 million over the combined four-year terms of the offices.