Senior judge tosses Northumberland County's appeal of row officer injunction
SUNBURY - A scathing opinion accompanied a senior judge's order to toss Northumberland County's appeal of a preliminary injunction granted to row officers who are fighting to prevent last fall's majority decision by the commissioners to slash their salaries between 40 and 45 percent.
In a ruling issued Monday and filed Thursday in the county prothonotary's office, Senior Judge David E. Grine called the salary reductions, which he described as "startling," and the accompanying increased cost of health insurance caused "serious harm" to the affected office holders.
He added that what also must be considered is the potential impact on the offices themselves, noting that staffing had already been cut.
"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 a 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 wrote.
"The county code was enacted to offer guidance to local governments, but it also was intended to provide protection to public servants. In no other forum is the necessity of that protection as evident as the forum presented to this court on Nov. 8, 2013."
That was the date Grine granted a preliminary injunction to coroner James F. Kelley, register and recorder Mary Zimmerman, former sheriff Chad Reiner and treasurer Kevin Gilroy.
The four filed a civil lawsuit in October following a decision that month by commissioners Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi to slash their salaries and that of the offices of county prothonotary and the commissioners. Health care contributions were set to rise to 50 percent of the premium. Commissioner Rick Shoch opposed. Changes were to take effect following the next election for each office.
The injunction stalled the action and Grine's decision will allow the row officers' lawsuit to move forward in the Court of Common Pleas.
Northumberland County appealed, urged on by majority commissioners Bridy and Clausi, saying the court erred in finding that sufficient evidence existed for the injunction.
Grine said evidence favoring the plaintiffs meets six criteria justifying such an injunction: irreparable harm would occur before the matter would be addressed in court, there is no harm to the defendants by granting an injunction, it wouldn't change the county's financial standing as it were immediately prior to when the cuts were approved, plaintiffs' right to relief is clear in that the controller position, held at the time by Tony Phillips, was left unchanged, simply filing a lawsuit wouldn't allow plaintiffs a chance at full recovery of losses, and the public interest is not adversely affected.
"As each office performs a public service, and the allocation of resources and administrative responsibilities remains the same as it was in 2013, the public interest has not only not be adversely affected, but has been bolstered. The public will earn a benefit from the continuation of the current office holders in their duties at their prior salaries and with their prior benefit plans," Grine wrote.
At a glance
A look at the changes to salaries and health benefits for county row officers that were approved Oct. 1 (position; current and reduced salary and reduction percentage; who was serving at the time; year new salary would be effective, which follows the election for each respective office):
- County commissioners: $61,000 to $31,500; 48.4 percent; Stephen Bridy, Vinny Clausi and Richard Shoch; 2016.
- Coroner: $53,834 to $30,500; 43.4 percent; James F. Kelley; 2014.
- Prothonotary: $57,396 to $31,000; 46 percent; Kathleen Strausser (now held by Justin Dunkelberger); 2014.
- Register and recorder: $57,396 to $31,000; 46 percent; Mary Zimmerman; 2014.
- Sheriff: $53,834 to $31,000; 42.5 percent; Chad Reiner (now held by Robert Wolfe); 2016.
- Treasurer: $53,834 to $31,000; Kevin Gilroy; 2016.
- Controller: $56,676; unchanged; Tony Phillips (now held by Chris Grayson).
- District attorney: $172,270; unchanged (state sets salaries for district attorneys); Tony Rosini (now held by Ann Targonski).
Health care: All elected officials would be required to pay 50 percent of the cost of health insurance beginning with their new term.
Single plan: $347.88 per month (up from $108); $4,174.56 per year.
Two-party: $694.32 (up from $175); $8,331.84 per year.
Family: $872.97 (up from $241); $10,475.64 per year.