Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham is in a tug of war over a proposed Lehigh County Government expansion. President Judge Platt, Lehigh County Commissioners, and DA Jim Martin want a brand new addition, which will cost at least $80.6 million, and give them opulent accomodations. In fact, in Platt's 2005 annual report, he told the assembled masses that the court had already begun the architectural phase of a plan to double the courthouse's size.
But here's one small problem - Bill Platt is not the county exec. True, Platt does get to wear a black dress and people genuflect as he walks by, but he's still not county exec. That distinction belongs to Cunningham, and he wants a scaled down version that could save taxpayers $23 million.
In most counties, judges run everything. Lehigh County is no different from most, and Platt has already threatened court orders mandating the expansion. Even that's not unusual. In Monroe County, former President Judge Marsh used to issue court orders setting the thermostat. So by resisting judges, Cunningham is doing the right thing. He's trying to save the taxpayers some money and establish that he, not the judges, is county exec. He need look no farther than Northampton County to discover what happens when judges are given free reign over the public purse.
In 2001, Northampton County finally adopted a bond ordinance that authorized construction of a $42 million courthouse expansion. Its first effort failed. I was part of a group that successfully challenged the initial bond because council never bothered to obtain "realistic cost estimates" required by law. The state DCED ruled that Council was nothing more than a "bystander." On its second bite at the apple, county council conducted several hearings, and even hired stenographers to take down every word. But these transcribed hearings revealed that, once again, there were no realisitic cost estimates for the courthouse expansion.
Judges were still conducting a "needs study," whatever that is, for the new courthouse. A registered architect flatly told council twice (3/8/01 & 5/21/01) that he wouldn't have the realistic cost estimates required by law until after this was done. Makes sense. You don't know what something costs until you know what you need.
Though they had no cost estimates, both Court Administrator James N. Onembo and President Judge Robert Freedberg insisted the project be funded and promised repeatedly there would be no cost overruns. I can still hear Freedberg's words, which were transcribed: "Give us $42 million and we'll come in at that or under." County Council gave Freedberg what he wanted. My second DCED challenge was rejected because the county actually filled out an affidavit with realistic cost estimates the architect himself said could not be provided.
When the debt service on this bond required the county to raise taxes 70% in two years and eliminate over 100 county positions, the judges did not stir from their teak coffins. But when it became apparent the prison was going to cost more than the $22.7 million allotted, and some council members merely suggested that perhaps the court could forego some of the more luxurious items, like the marble floors or wind sensitive fountains, the judges paraded before council en masse. President Judge Freedberg was furious that anyone would dare suggest a dime be trimmed. "I didn't expect to have to be here," he imperiously asserted. Council quickly backed down. Freedberg didn't even have to wear his black dress.
But as it happens, the architect was right. And guess what? The project is now at least $3 million over budget. The county could make up the deficit by using $2 million left over from a Bethlehem road project, but a majority of council is inclined to let Bethlehem use this money for yet another road for reasons that defy logic. As a result, Stoffa may actually have to tap into Gracedale (its senior citizen home) for the dough to complete what President Judge Freedberg called a "commitment to justice." Those of us who don't wear black dresses call it a monument to judicial arrogance.
This judicial arrogance is clear from the way judges have ignored the funding crisis they created. But if there's any doubt in your mind, it will be erased when I tell you about the role of our court administrator, the design of this monstrosity, and the finished product. I'll tell you about our court administrator next time.