Over the past two weeks, I've been focusing on Northampton County's tipstaffs, who are regularly paid for hours they never work as glorified butlers for our local judges. Northampton County Council Prez Ron Angle, in a news conference last week, describes their duties.
"The tipstaff is kind of a personal aide to judges. Each judge has two tipstaffs. The tipstaff basically bangs the gavel, says court is in session, bangs the gavel when they're gonna' adjourn, goes gets coffee, shows jurors to the jury room, if the judge is looking for water, he goes look for him. Frankly, they're political patronage jobs is actually what they are. They're not hired based on their ability, they're not hired based on a test. Each judge is allowed to pick two tipstaffs.
"Now, these tipstaffs make in the range of $20 to $28 thousand a year. They're indisputably part-time jobs. They're here when the judge they work for is in the courtroom and court is in session. If he's not here, they're not here. When court's adjourned, they go home. They work on average maybe a little over 20 hours per week.
"They're hourly employees but mysteriously, somehow they're now being called salaried employees. But in reality, they are hourly employees.
"Now in the times we're in - in the United States and in this state and in this County - where people are losing their health care benefits, people are losing many things - these part-time political patronage employees who make 20 some thousand a year for a minimal amount of hours a week, get full County benefits. Their benefits equal their pay. They get it all. They get health care, they get dental, they get a pension, they get everything imaginable. To hit a gavel and say court's in session, to hit a gavel and say we're going to lunch, to go get coffee, and to basically be an errand person.
"Now anybody who's been around the courthouse realizes, and I'm not looking to demean them, but that is the job. That is the honest reality of that is the job.
"Well yesterday, when I and Mr. Stoffa tried to explain to the President Judge that these are the kind of things we need to cut, it's not going to have any impact on the functions of the Court. Well, they were adamant. These guys are very important guys who they don't know how they could function without them.
"So I would ask the taxpayers of Northampton County, because most of these tipstaffs are retired people, wouldn't every retired person in Northampton County love to have a $25 thousand a year job for a few hours a week, get another pension some day and get full health benefits? We'd have people lined up for these jobs. But you don't get a chance to get that job because that's a political patronage job.
"Those jobs should absolutely be eliminated. If a judge says to me, or like Mr. Onembo tried to say to me, well who will bang the gavel, who will close the door? Well, most of the time, for those people who cover the court beat, there's two or three deputies in the courtroom. Let the deputy bang the gavel, let the deputy go for coffee, let the deputy fill the water jug.
"I don't expect the lady in Walnutport who's a widow on a fixed income to pay for it, or the young couple in Hellertown, who's trying to hang onto their house, to pay for it.
"Frankly, the courts are out of control ... . They live in their own world. They don't care about the taxpayers of Northampton County. They live to serve their little kingdom over in their ivory palace made of marble. Well frankly, as you can see by me, I serve the people, and it's time the courts got snapped into line. "
Now if the tipstaff positions are eliminated, as Angle suggests, judges will just complain that the legislature is interfering with a separate branch of government, and one we have an obligation to fund. They'll win. But we can lose a battle and win the war.
How? Re-classify tipstaff positions in next year's budget so that they are only paid when they actually work. Kill the benefits, too. Judges can then sue their heart out, but they lose. It is impossible to justify payments for hours not worked. That's called theft.