A two-year-old Northumberland County lawsuit against Coal Township in regards to disputed prison permit fees resulted in more than $85,000 in legal fees so far for the township.
The county paid two sets of third-party inspection fees — $161,724 and $220,801, the second under protest in 2017 — for the new county jail in Coal Township. A lawsuit was filed by the county in January 2018 to recoup the money, but documents obtained by The Daily Item show that the disputed fees were not put in an escrow account by township officials. There has been no movement on the lawsuit for 11 months.
County Commissioner Chairman Sam Schiccatano criticized the Coal Township Board of Commissioners for not putting the money into escrow while township Commissioner President Craig Fetterman expressed his own criticism, noting there would be no winners in this lawsuit.
"I delivered both checks to the township commissioners, they knew it was delivered under protest, they knew there would be a lawsuit," said Schiccatano. "Any responsible elected official would have put that money in escrow. They shouldn't want their citizens in jeopardy. I think Coal Township citizens should be asking those questions and what should happen if the lawsuit does not go in their favor, where will the money come from to pay it back."
Expenses to township, county
The Daily Item filed a Right To Know Request on Jan. 8 to Coal Township seeking information on the escrow account involving the prison fees as well as legal fees for the township in defending the lawsuit. The township on Monday answered that request, which shows that the township spent $85,907.18 so far and that no escrow account exists.
"I am intimately involved in this particular matter (the prison permit fees) and can verify that no prison project permit fees were escrowed," said township manager Robert Slaby, who serves as the township's open records officer, in a signed affidavit.
All invoices from township attorney Paul Logan, of Philadelphia, were provided to The Daily Item, but details of tasks performed by legal counsel to justify billing were redacted under the claim of attorney-client privilege, Slaby said.
Schiccatano said the county is handling the lawsuit in-house. Solicitor Frank Garrigan, whose salary is $45,600 a year, does all the legal counsel for the case, therefore the county does not have any extra expenses associated with the lawsuit, he said.
The last motion filed on the lawsuit was on Feb. 11 when Senior Judge Dudley Anderson granted a motion from the county to withdraw a motion to compel the township to provide documents. Nothing has been filed from either the county, the township or the judge since that date 11 months ago.
Fetterman said the township has been advised to be limited in public comments, but he provided a statement to The Daily Item. He noted that no courts told them to hold onto the funds and Northumberland County did not file anything to have the funds sequestered in an interest-bearing account.
"By the end of 2020, Coal Township will have spent $150,000 in legal fees to defend this lawsuit," said Fetterman. "I remind you that this suit has been filed by Northumberland County, and every bill list has been approved at each public Coal Township meeting by all five Coal Township Commissioners. This is the people's money and it needs to be kept for the safety and services of the taxpayers."
The township spent the funds on the Arch Street Recreation project to benefit youth, those with disabilities, the elderly and all township residents in general, said Fetterman.
"Hopefully the county commissioners realize the importance of the project," he said. "This is not a contest or a game. In the end, there will be no winners. Everyone loses from Coal Township to Milton."
He added, "Northumberland County did not sue the five township commissioners. They sued each and every resident and taxpayer of Coal Township and Northumberland County. In the current crazy political atmosphere, Northumberland County may be in contention for the grand prize as they have managed to sue themselves."
Fetterman said the township will not fight the battle in the media and invited the county commissioners to attend a public township meeting to discuss the issue in a public, open forum in front of the entire five-member board. The next public meeting is at 7 p.m. Feb. 5.
"We need to work together if we have any desire to grow and prosper," Fetterman said.
Schiccatano said he is willing to sit down and settle the lawsuit.
Schiccatano and former Commissioner Chairman Rick Shoch filed the original lawsuit. Minority Commissioner Kymberley Best opposed the suit.