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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, July 18, 2014

President Judge Baratta, Blogger

(President Judge Steve Baratta (L) speaks during John Brown's swearing-in ceremony in January. From left to right next to Judge Baratta are Judges Anthony Beltrami, Michael Koury and Jennifer Sletvold.)

I'm in the deep end of the pool now. I had a pretty damn distinguished visitor yesterday. President Judge Steve Baratta. He could sentence me to 20 years in the electric chair, and would have no difficulty finding any number of people who are all too willing to throw the switch. Not only did he visit this blog, but he commented. Not only did he comment, but he disagreed. Not only did he disagree, but he accused me of mischaracterizing his views on a county issue.

Actually, it was not me who posted yesterday's "Shut Up and Take the Money!" It was my evil twin.

Don't believe me? I don't think Judge Baratta will either.

He might buy insanity.

My story was about NorCo Register of Wills Gina Gibbs' proposal to raise fees, which could bring in an extra $100,000 every year. She asked President Judge Stephen Baratta, apparently several times, to wave his magic wand and approve these increases. He declined for two reasons, according to my interpretation of an Express Times account. First, he believes - and he's a judge so he oughta' know - that these increases are the province of the Executive and Council, not the courts. Second, he adds that "even if I did have the authority, I am not willing to raise fees at (Gibbs') request." He goes on to state there's no "need to increase fees, which I view as an indirect tax on families who require the services of Orphans' Court." He finally points out that the office revenue has exceeded expenses by $452,000 over the last three years.

Now when Judge Baratta or any other judge is speaking as a judge, what they say demands our respect and attention. So I have no quarrel with his first argument and said so. But when Judge Baratta or any other judge speaks out on county issues, I have a right to take him to task, and I did. I also ripped Council member Mat Benol and The Express Times editorial board because that's what I do.

I'm as mean as cat shit.

Right now, the County needs every penny it can get. Its unrestricted reserve, which independent auditors say should be between $33 and $66 million, is going in the wrong direction. We spent $14 million more than we took in last year, leaving that unrestricted reserve (or rainy day fund) at a precarious $11.1 million at the end of the year. Since we spend between $9-10 million per month, that's a very bad place to be.

To make matters worse, seven union contracts need to be negotiated. I doubt they'll be asking for less money.

I honestly don't know how a tax hike can be avoided next year.

Governor Corbett, just last week, inked a bill increasing the cost for recording a deed. Immediately. That's an indirect tax on families that require the services of the Recorder of Deeds. Just two years ago, County Council added a $10 fee for parcel ID checks, which is another indirect tax that has resulted in about $300,000 per year in the county coffers. Former Recorder of Deeds Ann Achatz, who had recommended that increase, was praised.

Judge Baratta believes these fees should be increased only when there's a need within that office. I believe you need to look at the entire County. So I do think the Orphans Court fees should be looked at as a way to counter the deficit. In my view, Judge Baratta in effect made an argument that each office must be revenue neutral. He disagrees

While he is not speaking here as a judge, I need to point out that he was an Assistant County Solicitor and First Assistant District Attorney. Also, in private practice, he spent quite a bit of time conveyancing at the courthouse, when real estate was more popular than it is today. He knows almost all the searchers and knows what is going on in the courthouse. For example, he knows there's a manpower shortage in the Civil Division.  So he might understand county operations a tad bit better than a bottom-feeding blogger.

I thought I should make his comment, posted late yesterday, into a separate post. .

Mr. O’Hare,

Generally I would chose to remain quiet with regard to political discussion, but because your comments raise important matters of governance, the role of the Court and the separation of powers (and perhaps of equal importance to me, because this discussion has mischaracterized my position), I think that it might be appropriate to weigh in.

First, please know that my letter was directed to the County Solicitor’s Office in response to an Assistant Solicitor who rendered an opinion that the President Judge had the authority to consider Ms. Gibb’s request to raise fees in Orphan’s Court. I disagreed with that conclusion based upon the Home Rule Charter and Pennsylvania case law.

Second, I did not recommend against action by Mr. Brown to raise fees. Issues related to the generation of revenue should be the province of the executive and legislative branches of county government. The Court has no business interfering with such authority.

However, I did state that I would not support the request to raise fees because it was not my decision to make. I also stated that if I was incorrect as to my authority, I saw no need to raise fees, as Orphan’s Court was consistently generating excess revenue from its operation. Thus, the Court has no need to raise fees to cover court operations.

I think that we can both agree that even if I had the authority to raise Orphan’s Court fees, raising court fees to cover the County’s general fund deficit is improper action for the Court. Raising fees in Orphan’s Court for the purpose of stabilizing the general fund is an indirect tax placed upon those who must access the court system to negotiate or resolve issues which impact fundamental family matters, such as decedent estates, adoptions, marriages, and guardianships for minors, the elderly and incompetent persons.

The Court should not be in the business of taxing citizens or deciding how the County should raise revenue. It should be a decision made by the County Executive in conjunction with County Council’s approval.

In conclusion, I made no argument for "revenue neutrality." I see this as a matter of governance and not for the Court. If Orphan’s Court fees are raised by the Executive and/or County Council, it will be met with silence by the Court.

Stephen Baratta

Your Honor, Can I have the weekend before reporting to jail? I promised to watch my grandson's dog.


Anonymous said...

Its a shame the President Judge had to lower himself to post on this blog in order to set the record straight.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I don't think he feels that way or he would not have bothered. I do appreciate his willingness to come on this site and get his view out there. I still disagree with his policy argument.

he states, "I think that we can both agree that even if I had the authority to raise Orphan’s Court fees, raising court fees to cover the County’s general fund deficit is improper action for the Court."

Actually, that's where we do disagree. I think raising Orphan's court fees to help cover a general fund deficit is a proper action, not by the court, but by the Exec.and Council, if it is legally permitted.

Anonymous said...

What a horrendous blow to the judiciary to see the PJ actually reading your crap, and then winding down the dignity of the entire bench by making a comment.

If he were that annoyed, I'd feel better had he dragged your sorry lying disbarred ass into a courtroom without a written complaint , on one hours notice and sentence you to never being able to touch a keyboard ever again.

What the fuck is wrong with him?

Anonymous said...

retention time cant come fast enough....I will slam the "NO" button, then hit "CAST VOTE" and leave

Anonymous said...

The only reason he peeks at the blog is to see the daily pics of the WestEaston stunner with her sidearm and spare mags.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Gee, I wonder who this could be. But not too much.

Anonymous said...

anon 2:09. kissing O'Hare's ass is popular for you poison posse boys but that is just crazy, as are you.

Anonymous said...

2.07 is definitely the one who cannot be named. That writing style is unique. But the thing that stands out is that he is envious that someone (of importance) read your blog and commented. The only ones at his blog that cannot be named (or should I write that ot is his wife's blog) are his imaginary friends and a fake interview with the mayor.

Anonymous said...

Its the new media you would not get this issue raised in the paper or on Tv. We need more citizen journalist. I think some in Congress want to define what the press is they cant stand the heat. Good job

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, everyone is covered under the First Amendment.

Anonymous said...

I believe there is caselaw in PA which holds that in order to be reasonable, the amount of the fee must be related to the cost of providing the services. If they are already truly in the black even with all the indirect cost allocations ( e.g. pension costs), you cannot justify the fee increase as being related to the cost of the service provided.

Anonymous said...

Fees charged by municipality for services it renders in performing its official functions must be based on costs of municipality in performing that service; municipality cannot use its power to charge fees for issuing licenses or permits for the purpose of raising revenue for general governmental purposes. Raum v. Board of Sup'rs of Tredyffrin Tp., 29 Pa.Cmwlth. 9, 370 A.2d 777

Bernie O'Hare said...

2:09 is obviouly the same person who posted at 2:07.

Bernie O'Hare said...

10:35, i will read that case today. If that is what it says, I'llhave to wonder about many of the fees and taxes imposed.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this isn't the first Judge you've pissed off. Next will be a petition to bar you from all of the courtrooms. LOL

Bernie O'Hare said...

Yes, I know. I never much cared for the courthouse expansion, which I think was a disaster in many ways. So i was highly critical of that. I don't really care for the way it is laid out because it demeans the public, who is forced to walk an unnecessarily long distance to get inside the building. Its roof design is so bad that sliding snow and ice could kill someone, and has spawned a lawsuit. I was also highly critical of Onembo as Court Administrator. I will concede the acoustics in the new courtrooms are excellent.

I have supported the courts in most matters. They are reputedly the best bench in the state.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Its the new media you would not get this issue raised in the paper"

Actually, the only reason I even knew about this issue is bc of the ET.They had a story and an editorial that agrees with Judge Baratta. That editorial is what inspired me to write.

Anonymous said...

"The only reason he peeks at the blog is to see the daily pics of the WestEaston stunner with her sidearm and spare mags."

I believe hizzoner is a gentleman who prefers women. However, her bad dye job, skeletor-like structure, Mr. Ed face, and protruding Adam's Apple are certainly stunning.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'd like to thank the reader who referred me to the Raum decision. It's a well-written and exhaustive opinion by Judge Crumlish that balances the competing desires of shoddy developers against no-growth municipalities.

In an effort to prevent development, Treddyffrin Township Supervisors adopted fee schedules that can only be regarded as unconscionable. They bore "no relation to the costs of the Township in reviewing and otherwise processing the plans."

The Court does say, "A municipality cannot use its poewer to charge fees for issuing licenses or permits for the purpose of raising revenue for general governmental purposes."

But when I look at the entire decision, the court was guarding against a municipality that was trying to discourage any development at all by enacting onerous fees.

I'd agree that there should be some relation to the fees being charged and the services provided. BVut not a quid pro quo. So long as the fees are in line with other jurisdictions and are not oppressive, I see no reason why they can't be increased, even if another purpose is to help other departments of government that are losing money.

Here is on online link to the decision, which I highly recommend.