Eliminating the use of constables in Northumberland County to transport prisoners will cost taxpayers more money, cause manpower problems for police and be detrimental to the criminal justice system, according to law enforcement and government officials.

On a split vote Nov. 20, county commissioners placed the responsibility of paying constable fees and transporting prisoners on the municipalities that arrest them.

Voting in favor of the move were Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy. Commissioner Richard Shoch opposed the motion, claiming shifting the fees and transportation responsibility to already financial-strapped municipalities will end up costing taxpayers more money.

The change takes effect Jan. 1.

The county currently pays state constables, who are independent contractors, for their services and then must seek reimbursement from the defendants through fines and costs.

Municipal police departments will now be responsible for transporting prisoners, which places an additional financial burden on communities. Unlike the county, municipalities have no legal recourse to recover transportation costs.

State constables are paid on average $45.40 per transport plus 55 1/2 cents per mile. They receive a state rate holding fee of $13 per hour after holding a prisoner for 30 minutes.

The constables will still serve arrest warrants and perform other duties.

Thomas Impink, president of the Pennsylvania State Constables Association, believes not having constables transport prisoners to and from their

arraignments and hearings will not only place a financial burden on municipalities, but also jeopardize the safety of communities.

Impink, who wasn't aware of the move by the county commissioners until contacted by The News-Item, said, "It's a shame the commissioners did that. I know everybody wants to save a buck these days. But all they look at is the bottom line and not the ramifications it will have on police departments and municipalities. Any time you take a cop off the streets to transport prisoners when someone else can be doing that, it jeopardizes the safety of citizens. It's also a burden on the taxpayers because they are paying for police protection."

He said another option for the county commissioners is using deputy sheriffs to transport prisoners to and from arraignments. But he said that alternative would create more costs for the county because additional manpower would need to be hired in the sheriff's office, making the county responsible for more wages, overtime and mileage reimbursements.

He said a statewide fee structure is established for all constables. "Basically, all state constables are paid the same rate for transporting prisoners," he said.

Impink said Northumberland County is losing money by using constables because of the poor collection rate on fines and costs from prisoners, which specifically falls on the court collection system.

"The parole and probation officers need to do a better job collecting money from defendants before releasing them from supervision," he said. "Some judges may not agree with that, but that's what needs to be done to increase the collection rate on fines and costs. Once defendants are released from court supervision programs, you will never get money from them.

"I think it's a bad move for the commissioners to stop using constables to transport prisoners. It will end up biting them in the long run."

Impink, of Wernersville in western Berks County near Reading, has been a state constable for 33 years. He has served as president of the association for four years. He said there are approximately 1,300 certified state constables in the state.

Clausi claims the move will save the county $150,000.

According to Northumberland County Controller Tony Phillips, the county primarily uses four constables - Larry Rompallo, Glenn Masser, Harold "Butch" Showers and Ryan Hays - to transport prisoners to and from legal proceedings.

Phillips said. in 2011, county constable expenses, including time and mileage, totaled $134,478.38. He said revenue (fines and court costs) generated by using constables in 2011 was $29,644.50 last year, leaving a deficit of $104,833.88.

Shamokin Mayor George Rozinskie said, "I think it's a bad idea because we don't have the personnel to be transporting these people."

Rompallo, a 15-year state constable assigned to transport prisoners for hearings and arraignments at the office of Magisterial District Judge Hugh Jones in Mount Carmel, said there are a total of seven certified constables in the county who transport prisoners.

He said state constables are elected every six years.

They must pay for their own uniforms, equipment including vehicles, guns, batons and mace, liability insurance ($500 per year) and a couple hundred dollar bonding fee. "We pay for everything. It probably cost me approximately $2,000 to get started as a constable," Rompallo said.

Rompallo said state constables must complete 80 hours of education to become certified by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and an additional 40 hours to obtain firearms certification. Every year, they are required to complete 20 hours each of continuing education and firearms certification.

In addition to transporting prisoners, constables also serve warrants for criminal, traffic and non-traffic offenses, complete paperwork for civil cases and magisterial court, issue notices in landlord/tenant cases, perform evictions or orders of possession, and orders of execution for sheriff sales.

Traffic and non-traffic warrants are served through the offices of the magisterial district judges, while criminal warrants go through the county.

"We can go anywhere in the state to serve warrants," Rompallo said. "That's the advantage of having state constables."

He said there is no regular starting or ending time for constables because they don't know when they are going to be called to pick up defendants or serve warrants.

Rompallo and fellow state constable Glenn Masser are not in favor of losing their transporting duties.

Masser, who has been a constable for 21 years and works out of the office of Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III of Shamokin, said, "The commissioners are passing the buck onto the municipalities that don't have the authority to recoup money from defendants."

Rompallo said, "Our fees would be covered if the defendants paid their fines and costs, but I'll have to live with whatever decision they (commissioners) make."

According to figures provided to him by Phillips, Mount Carmel Borough Manager Edward Cuff III said $3,650 and $41,969 was spent in 2010 and 2011, respectively, in Jones' magisterial district, which covers Mount Carmel, Mount Carmel Township, Kulpmont, East and West Cameron townships, Ralpho Township, Marion Heights, Riverside and Rush Township.

Based on those figures and the fact that Mount Carmel and Mount Carmel Township police file the majority of criminal complaints at Jones' office, Cuff estimated the borough would have to budget at least $40,000 in next year's spending plan to cover the cost of having police transport prisoners to and from arraignments and preliminary hearings.

Currently, the borough and other local communities don't pay anything for constable services.

Mount Carmel Police Chief Todd Owens believes the commissioners should reconsider their decision and try to resolve the problem of losing money with another alternative.

"The savings the county will enjoy will be passed onto the taxpayers in individual municipalities 10-fold," Owens said. "The money the county hopes to save in its budget by not having constables transport prisoners is minimal compared to the money municipalities will have to spend. This move directly impacts public safety and will reduce the number of officers who will be available to handle calls."

The borough employs eight full-time officers and four part-timers. Its police budget is approximately $700,000, which is approximately half of the total $1.5 million.

Borough police filed 191 criminal complaints in 2011. So far in 2012, police have filed 126 criminal complaints.

In reference to reports being circulated that police are "double dipping" by spending time at preliminary hearings, Owens responded, "Police aren't double dipping. We are at the mercy of the court, which is sometimes very time-consuming."

Owens believes the commissioners are redirecting the problem to police instead of trying to rectify the collection process of fines and costs from defendants.

"There will be a tremendous backlog of cases and some cases may be withdrawn as a result of the commissioners not using constables to transport prisoners," the chief said. "Everybody needs to come to the table and re-evaluate this decision because municipalities have no recourse to collect fines and costs from defendants, unlike the county, which has the authority to do that. The problem lies in the collection of fines and costs, some of which have been dormant for years."

He said, "Wear and tear on vehicles, wages and manpower all add up in this. Nobody wants to furlough police officers. But that's what it may come to if their decision isn't changed."

Cuff added, "We are in unchartered territory right now. It's going to be detrimental to the borough."

One option for the county or municipalities to save costs in transporting prisoners is the use of new technology that allows magisterial district judges to conduct preliminary hearings from their offices to the prison via video. Some arraignments are already conducted via video by Gembic and Jones.

If the prison becomes equipped with the proper technology, conducting arraignments and hearings would be more efficient, Owens said.

But the police chief noted that defendants have a right to be arraigned and have their hearings personally in front of a judge.

Mount Carmel Township Police Chief Brian Hollenbush agrees with Owens that discontinuing the use of constables to transport prisoners would take officers off the street and place an additional burden on police and their respective municipalities.

He said, "The county is double-taxing the citizens by doing this. Residents will be paying taxes to the municipality and county even though they won't be receiving the services provided by constables from the county."

The township employs six full-time officer and seven part-timers. It has a police budget of approximately $500,000, which is close to half of the overall $1.1 million spending plan.

He estimated that approximately $40,000 would have to be added to the police budget to cover the costs involved with transporting prisoners.

In 2011, Hollenbush said officers in his department filed 107 criminal complaints. Thus far in 2012, 82 criminal complaints have been filed.

According to the township police contract, officers working on the same day, but a different shift, than when hearings are held, get paid overtime for the amount of hours they spend at a preliminary hearing. If an officer is off on the day he attends a preliminary hearing, he receives a minimum of three hours overtime for the amount of time spent at the hearing. If an officer is working the same shift as the hearing is held, he doesn't receive any extra pay.

On average, Hollenbush said it will take about four hours, 40 minutes to transport a prisoner to and from a preliminary hearing.

"First, you have to get a warrant for the prisoner's release, then drive 30 minutes to the prison in Sunbury, wait 20 minutes for the release process to be completed, drive 30 minutes to Mount Carmel for the hearing, wait about two hours for the hearing to be completed (depending on the amount of cases), drive another 30 minutes to Sunbury, wait about 20 minutes for the prisoner to be recommitted, and then drive another 30 minutes back to Mount Carmel Township."

The chief noted that two officers are required to transport female prisoners to and from arraignments and hearings. He said if multiple male prisoners need to be transported, officers are only allowed to transport two at a time, which means if four male prisoners need to be taken to a hearing at the same time, it will require two police officers and two police vehicles.

At a Nov. 21 meeting, Mount Carmel Township Supervisor Chairman Charles Gasperetti referred to curtailing the use of constables for transporting prisoners as a "joke." He added, "To me, it's double-taxing the citizens. The county is taking away services the taxpayers are already paying for, and now they are pushing the burden onto the municipalities, and they might have to raise taxes to meet them."

Shamokin City Clerk Steve Bartos, a former county planning director who was fired from that position at the urging of Clausi, stated, "I understand the cost-saving measures the county is taking in an attempt to survive financially, but I think it's unfair for the commissioners to put this unfunded mandate on the local taxpayers. This won't save the taxpayers any money, only the county. And it will definitely hurt the municipalities, which are already hurting financially."

Bartos expects the city will end up spending an additional $50,000 to $60,000 per year for salaries, benefits, overtime, fuel and vehicle maintenance to transport prisoners to and from arraignments and hearings.

Shamokin Police Chief Edward Griffiths said his officers receive two hours of compensation time for attending preliminary hearings at Gembic's office if they aren't working the shift when the hearings occur. If it's their regular shift, police don't receive any compensation.

Griffiths said police can either take the compensatory time from their duties or cash it in.

"This move is definitely going to be a burden on us and other departments that help each other out," he said. "The problem lies with the county not properly collecting court costs and fines, not with the constables. I believe the taxpayers are getting cheated. We will be spending a lot of time hauling prisoners back and forth instead of patrolling the streets and that will definitely affect public safety. We may need to bring off-duty officers in to just transport prisoners. I don't know how city council will proceed with this. It's a serious issue."

Shamokin Police Department, which has a total of 11 officers including Griffiths, filed 283 criminal complaints in 2011. As of Nov. 1, officers have filed 199 criminal complaints this year.

In addition to their own arrests, Griffiths said his officers also assist other agencies like adult probation and parole and the sheriff's department in transporting prisoners.

The police budget totals $1.2 million, while the overall city budget is $2.5 million.

Jones, who utilizes Constables Larry Rompallo and Patrick Reynolds, said constables provide a valuable service, but also realizes the financial constraints the county faces. "As a former solicitor for the county, I know the county's economy isn't that great. We will deal with the decision made by the commissioners," the judge said.

Gembic reserved comment about the constable issue. His magisterial district encompasses Shamokin, Coal Township, Shamokin Township, Zerbe Township and Snydertown.

Coal Township Manager Robert M. Slaby Jr. said the township's police budget in 2013 is expected to be $916,000 in 2013, excluding all fringe benefits, while the overall budget is estimated at $27.6 million.

"The action taken by the commissioners will definitely cost us more money, but won't cause the township a significant financial hardship," he said.

Due to some unknown variables, Slaby said it was difficult to provide an accurate estimate on how much more money the township will have to budget for police to transport prisoners to and from their arraignments and preliminary hearings.

Under the township police contract, officers are paid two hours overtime for attending preliminary hearings during non-working hours. If they are working the shift when the hearings take place, they receive no compensation.

In 2011, police filed 436 criminal complaints and non-traffic citations. Thus far in 2012, township police have filed 329 criminal complaints and non-traffic citations.

The township has 12 officers, including Police Chief William Carpenter, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

On Aug. 15, 2011, the county, citing an effort to optimize efficiency and maintain sound financial controls over the collection of fines and restitution paid for criminal offenses, transferred the criminal cost office from the clerk of courts office at the courthouse to the adult probation department.

The transfer of the criminal cost office has increased revenue through more efficient and prompt cost collections, while expediting the collection of delinquent costs.

The move involved cost collection clerk Sarah Snyder being transferred to the adult probation department to supervise the collection office at an approximate salary of $26,000, and the hiring of Angie Houser as a secretary in the adult probation department at an approximate salary of $22,000.

At a press conference in October 2011, it was announced that the county had not collected $16.8 million in criminal court costs dating back to at least the 1970s.

The uncollected costs at the time included $2,459,000 in Act 35 supervision fees, $10,197,000 in costs and fines distributed equally among the county, state and municipalities, and $4,182,000 in restitution to crime victims.

At last year's press conference, Snyder said lack of resources, including manpower and technology, contributed to the collection problem.

Since there is no statute of limitations involved in collecting the money, it can be recouped as long as the delinquents are alive and can be located.

Clausi, President Judge Robert B. Sacavage and adult chief probation officer Dave Wondoloski expressed confidence last year that a significant amount of the delinquent costs could be recouped through the new county collection office and a government collection service that assists the county at no cost.

The new system of collecting costs is a definite improvement, according to Wondoloski, a retired state policeman.

"We are definitely making more progress in collecting costs," he said. "We've been averaging between 30 and 40 cost contempt bench warrants per month for non-payment of fines, which has generated approximately $10,000 per month."

He added, "Our collection rates have gone up within the last year. We try to locate people who are delinquent in their fines and costs and set up payment plans with them. Serving warrants is our last resort. The government collection agency assists our office in locating some of the delinquents because they have better resources to do that. We are doing the best we can with the resources we have available."

When asked to comment about the decision to stop using constables to transport prisoners to arraignments and hearings, Wondoloski said, "The courts have no control over the constables. That's up to the commissioners. I can't really comment because it's an administrative decision."