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