BEDFORD - The seven judges of the state's second-highest court ruled for the Bedford County commissioners over the county's chief judge Wednesday, seemingly ending a legal battle over government funds that dragged on for more than 18 months.
Under a Commonwealth Court order, Thomas S. Ling, Bedford County's president judge, must pay back $246,000 his office owes the county from a court fund and cede control of another fund intended for drunken driving education. On Wednesday, however, Ling said he intends to appeal
the case to the state Supreme Court.
The Commonwealth Court ruling is a broad victory for the commissioners, who sued Ling in fall 2012 to regain control over disputed county funds.
The battle began with their refusal to forward taxpayer money on credit to Ling's Probation Office and escalated when Ling moved unrelated funds - or held them hostage, in the commissioners' view - to enforce his own court orders.
In an opinion penned by Judge P. Kevin Brobson, the state judges authorized the county treasurer to take the $246,000 authorities are owed, with or without Ling's permission. Ling said he intends to seek a stay so he can delay repayment until the Supreme Court weighs his appeal.
"We're still looking into it," Ling said.
The dispute's origins go back more than a decade.
For years, including the time before Ling was chief judge, the commissioners regularly forwarded money to the court system for probation officers' bonus pay and other expenses. Later, when money arrived in a court-controlled fund made up of probation fees, the courts would pay back what they owed.
By 2011, however, lagging repayments left the office in debt to the county to the tune of $246,000. The commissioners ceased the payments, insisting that Ling's office cover the difference.
A game of one-upmanship ensued, with Ling issuing court orders demanding bonus payments and the commissioners threatening to dismiss the chief probation officer's assistant and eliminate her position. Ling ultimately took control of a county fund intended for DUI education, although the commissioners insisted the money wasn't his to control.
They sued Ling in November 2012; a slow, expensive, taxpayer-funded legal battle followed. An official with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania at the time said other counties were watching the case as a possible precedent.
In the end, the state judges agreed that Ling had to repay the money and that he overstepped his legal authority when he took control of the DUI fund. County judges have the right to appoint a coordinator for DUI classes but don't get to control their finances, they ruled.
With the disputed funds back under county control, Commissioner Chairman Kirt Morris said they would re-establish the county auditor's authority. Ling appointed his own outside auditors after he seized the DUI fund.
Regardless of the outcome of Ling's appeal, issues connected to the legal battle remain to be resolved. For months, the commissioners have repeatedly tabled a motion to remove Chief Probation Officer Keith Bowser's assistant, arguing that the position must be paid for with Supervisory Fund money - not
Morris said he's not against leaving the job in place, so long as Ling agrees that the salary must be covered by court fees and not county funds. The commissioners could rule on the position as soon as Tuesday.
On Wednesday, County Commissioners Association Executive Director Doug Hill said the ruling confirms much of what commissioners statewide have long fought for: a system of financial checks that keeps court officials from controlling county money without proper oversight.
"It will help when we run into disputes with the judiciary on how accounts are to be handled," Hill said. "It can be a fairly frequent discussion."
Morris said one policy is certain to change: The commissioners will no longer cover court or probation expenses from the county's general fund.
"It's just not going to fly anymore," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.