Bedford judge to end appeal with county

Attorneys for Bedford County’s chief judge have moved to end a state Supreme Court appeal in a legal battle with the county commissioners, giving them a victory in a two-year fight over funds.

Three months after a panel of Commonwealth Court judges ruled that county President Judge Thomas S. Ling’s office must repay the commissioners the county funds they’re owed, Ling’s attorneys filed Wednesday to end the case.

“This is a major step toward putting this whole thing behind us,” said Commissioner Chairman Kirt Morris, one of the four county officials who sued Ling in 2012 to regain control of disputed funds.

On Thursday, Ling said his state-appointed attorneys decided to end the case over his protest. Several questions remain to be answered, he said, and another future fight in court isn’t out of the question.

“I don’t know what (Morris) is going to hammer out. We have a lot of issues left to resolve, obviously,” Ling said.

Ling’s office must repay $246,000 it owes the county and turn over another pot of money intended for drunken driving classes, the Commonwealth Court ruled in May.

The commissioners delayed implementation of the repayment when they heard Ling planned to appeal the case to the state’s highest court.

Now, with Ling’s appeal dropped, Morris said he plans to meet with the judge and both sides’ attorneys in the coming weeks to hammer out a repayment plan. The commissioners won’t take unilateral action, including on a longstanding plan to eliminate a job in the court-controlled probation office, until both sides have met, he said.

The dispute began several years ago, when the courts – which control the county probation office – lagged in repaying funds the county had long advanced. With the probation office $246,000 in debt to the commissioners by 2011, the county officials decided to halt the money advances.

That prompted Ling to seize other county funds and assign them to outside auditors. Ling also issued court orders, essentially threatening the commissioners with contempt of court if they failed to pay bonuses to

probation officers.

The commissioners sued Ling, leading to the two-year legal battle that has seemingly ended this week. Outside groups including the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania took interest in the case, noting the precedent it could establish for other counties.

Ling’s attorneys won’t be available to settle repayment details next week, Morris said, so the case will likely be resolved later in September.

“I want to make sure that everyone’s on the same page,” he said.

Ling said the court battle and ensuing financial concerns have slashed the probation office and left broad questions about the management of court-controlled programs. If the commissioners order his office to pay union-mandated overtime, he could take the case to court again, he said. If nothing else, Ling said, repaying the money could help set the stage for broader negotiations on other disputes.

“It might make it easier to deal with the commissioners,” he said. “They’ve been screaming about that money for how long.”