Suit calls Northumberland County pay cuts a 'scheme'
SUNBURY - Four Northumberland County row officers whose salaries were cut up to 48 percent have sued, saying the change was "furtherance of a plan and scheme" to undermine the ability to perform their duties.
They say the pay reductions for five of six row offices imposed through the Oct. 1 vote by Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy violate state statute that requires salary increases or decreases be applied equally to all county officials and that "one county official should not make substantially more or less than another."
The increase of health care insurance contributions to 50 percent of the county cost for all row officers is also illegal because the statute requires benefits to be the same for all county employees, the suit says.
It also cites constitutional claims of association under the First and Fourteenth amendments, noting plaintiffs who are up for election this year have to deal with the "sudden reductions" after they "ran for these offices with the expectation the salary and benefits would allow them to fulfill their duties and responsibilities."
Bridy and Clausi stood by their votes as news of the lawsuit, which was expected, spread Tuesday.
"Whatever it is they're paying Mr. Stretton to file this, it's too much," Bridy said about the row officers' attorney, Samuel C. Stretton. "The claims he's making are baseless."
The 52-page suit, which contains exhibits, copies of resolutions involving the pay cuts and affidavits from the plaintiffs, was filed against Clausi, Bridy, Commissioner Richard Shoch and the county by Register and Recorder Mary Zimmerman, Coroner James F. Kelley, Treasurer Kevin Gilroy and Sheriff Chad Reiner.
They are asking for "declaratory relief," in that a judge would rule on the lawsuit without further action being taken. The suit also seeks "preliminary injunctive relief" to prevent the salary and benefit changes from going into effect Jan. 1 for Kelley and Zimmerman, and permanent relief.
The salary cuts are to take effect in the year after the election for the position.
Although Shoch voted against the salary cuts - which reduce pay for the offices from their current range of $53,000 to $57,000 to about $31,000, and the insurance increase - he is listed as a defendant.
The salary cuts will save the county $151,294, and the increased health care contributions will save thousands more. Bridy and Clausi also voted to cut the salaries of commissioners nearly in half, from $61,000 to $31,000, saving another $90,000.
Controller Tony Phillips, who is seeking re-election, is not part of the suit since the salary for his office remained at $56,676, which seems to be the basis for the suit's argument that decreases must be "applied equally."
Prothonotary Kathleen Strausser, who is retiring at the end of the year, and District Attorney Tony Rosini, whose salary is set by the state, also are not involved in the suit, although the next prothonotary would make the lower rate when he or she takes office Jan. 1.
The rate change for the sheriff and treasurer, as well as the commissioners, would take effect in 2016.
Stretton, of West Chester, was in court and unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Bridy said he consulted with three attorneys prior to proposing the change and believes the law is on his side.
He said the row officers involved represent "an entitlement society wanting what is due from the taxpayers as opposed to being true servants."
He said no row officers came to him about the issue since it was first made public in late May.
Clausi said he and Bridy did what was best for the taxpayers.
"We believe the row officers and commissioners do not deserve what they are currently getting paid," he said. "They are part-time positions and we will fight this to the bitter end."
Shoch said he had not seen the lawsuit, but that it's typical for the county and all three commissioners to be named in such an action.
"If there's any kind of motion to have it dismissed, having voted against everything, there may be a dismissal for me," he said.
As for the suit itself, he said, "This is not the first lawsuit they've gotten us in and will not be the last. I would imagine the county will hand it over to insurance carriers, and our insurance will likely go up."
Shoch denied Clausi's claim that he worked with the row officers to file the suit.
"I still have conversations with them, but I have not been working with them," he said. "Why would I work to file an action against myself? It's more ridiculous lies from Mr. Clausi."
He said the lawsuit was "very avoidable."
"If you're with Vinny, you get rewarded, and if you're not, you're punished," Shoch said.
The plaintiffs are seeking to have a hearing on their motion for preliminary injunction, but no action had been taken on their request as of Tuesday. Northumberland County Judges Robert B. Sacavage and William H. Wiest have already recused themselves from hearing the suit due to a potential conflict of interest. Judge Charles Saylor has not had the opportunity to review the complaint.
The plaintiffs claim they will suffer irreparable harm and the changes will undermine and prevent them from performing their duties.
The suit says Pennsylvania Statute 16 11011-10.1 (e) does not allow for reduction of salaries, only increases. Bridy, noting he had not yet studied the language of the suit, believes decreasing salaries is inferred in the law.
The complaint notes the reduction in the sheriff's salary greatly impacts on the security at the county courthouse and "places all employees and judicial officers at risk."
It says the reductions represent "an impermissible interference by the defendants into the administration and running of county row offices."
As to the 50 percent insurance premium, the plaintiffs cite another section of the statute in arguing that "all employees have to be offered the same plan and have to be treated equally."
The change in health care contributions ups the monthly rates from $108 to $348 for the single plan; $175 to $694 for two-party; and $241 to $873 for family. It applies to all six row offices.