The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 8, 2013

Judge to slashers: Pay stays

By Francis Scarcella
The Daily Item

— SUNBURY — Northumberland County row officers won the first legal fight in regaining their full salaries Friday after a Centre County judge imposed a preliminary injunction that prevents commissioners from implementing pay cuts and increased insurance contributions Jan. 1.

But Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Steve Bridy struck back within minutes of David E. Grine’s decision, saying the senior judge did not provide a reason for his ruling.

Clausi said commissioners will appeal the decision.

“We want to know the basis of how (Grine) ruled, and we will ask for that in writing,” said Clausi, who missed the hearing because he was out of state on business. “(Grine’s) opinion will (determine) if we take a revote.”

Commissioners have voted twice and approved salary decreases and health insurance contribution increases for row officers and for themselves.

The first vote was nullified because it was not properly advertised to the public. The result of the second, which took place Oct. 1, was preliminarily halted when Grine agreed that the salary decreases, in some cases up to 48 percent, could not be allowed because commissioners made an exception for the county controller, Tony Phillips, whose position actually received a raise.

Phillips was defeated in Tuesday’s general election by Chris Grayson.

Grine heard testimony from four row officers and two commissioners before issuing his order Friday.

Said Bridy, who testified Friday: “If it comes to (a re-vote), then maybe a third time may be a charm.”

Attorney Samuel Stretton, of West Chester, represented Prothonotary Mary Zimmerman, Coroner James Kelley, Sheriff Chad Reiner and Treasurer Kevin Gilroy in the complaint filed against Northumberland County and Commissioners Clausi, Bridy and Rick Shoch.

Row officers and commissioners’ pay was slashed after Clausi and Bridy voted in favor of the move in September and October. Shoch voted no on both occasions.

Shoch, Bridy, Gilroy, Kelley, Zimmerman and Phillips testified Friday morning.

Stretton claimed commissioners set the controller’s office salary at $56,676 and that because the office gets a $3,281 check from the county retirement fund, the office actually received a raise while the other row officers’ paychecks would be slashed.

Phillips argued with Stretton, telling him the $3,281 was part of the $56,676 and that there was no raise.

Stretton and Phillips battled for 10 minutes before Stretton called Bridy to the stand.

Bridy was asked whether commissioners conducted studies to show how cutting salaries would help save taxpayers’ money and whether Bridy had any documentation to prove it.

Clausi was subpoenaed, to court and to bring documents of those studies, but he was released from appearing because he was scheduled to be out of town on business.

Bridy took his place.

Stretton went as far as to say Northumberland County solicitors John Muncer and Frank Garrigan begged Stretton to release Clausi from appearing because of his business trip and a deal was made that Bridy would attend and bring any documents.

When Stretton asked Bridy for the documents, Bridy responded: “You never subpoenaed me. I was only told to be here.”

An irate Stretton asked the judge to make Bridy drive to the commissioners office or his house to get notes or whatever research was conducted.

Bridy said he researched on his own and found the median income for Northumberland County residents was much lower than he thought and felt row officers and commissioners needed to give money back to taxpayers.

“For a lack of better term, these people are head tellers, and a bank teller on a Friday afternoon takes more deposits than our treasurer’s office does in a year,” Bridy testified. “They (row officers) have a little bit more responsibility than a bank teller. The master shouldn’t serve more than their slaves.”

Stretton eventually withdrew his request to see the studies and asked Bridy whether he had documentation.

“No,” Bridy said.

Stretton was adamant about row officers’ not having to contribute 50 percent toward health benefits, citing Kelley, who was paying $200 per month for insurance for his family. Under the commissioners’ plan, Kelley would be hit with a $800 monthly deduction.

Kelley, who was re-elected Tuesday, would suffer as his $53,834 salary would be cut to $30,500, and have to pay 50 percent toward his insurance, which would amount to a gross pay of about $19,000 for his 24-hours-a-day service, Stretton said.

Kelley, Gilroy and Zimmerman — who was also re-elected Tuesday — use the county health benefit program. Reiner does not.

Shoch testified and was asked whether he thought row officers’ or commissioners’ jobs were full time.

“My understanding is they work full time,” he said.

Shoch said he often visits the Northumberland County Courthouse and has little trouble finding row officers in their departments.

Muncer crossed-examined his boss, Shoch, and asked whether Shoch believes commissioners’ jobs are full time and whether he is in his office every day.

“Absolutely not,” Shoch said. “But I spend evenings and weekends talking with people about county issues and if you ask my wife, she will tell you that this takes up most of my time.”

Stretton asked Shoch whether Clausi or Bridy are in their offices every day and whether Clausi has taken three monthlong vacations in 2013.

“I know at one point I didn’t see Commissioner Bridy and a rumor went around that he actually took a job somewhere,” Shoch said.

After two hours of testimony, Stretton asked the judge to make an immediate decision on the preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction to stop the salary cuts, but Grine ruled to grant the preliminary injunction.

“This is the first step,” Stretton said after the verdict.

“The judge believed our argument and I am hoping to get this permanent injunction as soon as possible.”

A third meeting to cut salaries could be held depending on the result of the appeal, Clausi and Bridy said.

Commissioners can take a re-vote, Stretton said, adding he was not sure what would happen if that occurs.

“I am discussing with our attorneys what we will be doing,” Clausi said. “But as the chairman I promise the taxpayers I will be bringing this back to the table.”