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Counties need more support from our state

If it’s true that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Pennsylvania’s 67 counties can be faulted for not being “squeaky” enough regarding state funding of their courts.

But hopefully the “noise” that emanated from the Blair County commissioners meeting room on Oct. 22 represents a beginning that will be heard eventually by commissioners of the other 66 counties — but, more importantly, by state lawmakers in Harrisburg.

With the state’s fiscal picture far from as bright as it could be, although apparently improving, the courts-funding matter no doubt will defy a quick resolution. However, keeping the issue front-and-center is the only way that counties can hope to ever have any chance of getting the state government eventually to live up to its funding pledge made years ago.

The pledge: that the state would fund the county courts to the tune of $70,000 per judge.

Under that formula, Blair should be receiving $350,000 annually.

The important word is “should.”

Instead, Blair has been notified that its next reimbursement will be the same as last year’s — $227,746.

The state’s broken promise is not of insignificant scope.

At the Oct. 22 commissioners meeting, the funding issue was raised by commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb, who pointed out that “it’s the county taxpayers and, more specifically, the county property owners who end up bearing the burden that the commonwealth is shirking.”

Beyond that important observation, Erb also emphasized that even if the state were to allocate that annual $350,000 promised years ago, the commonwealth still wouldn’t come close to covering this county’s actual expenses to administer and operate the local court system.

Still, the extra money would relieve some of the financial burden with which the commissioners grapple every year at budget-preparation time.

When the county government benefits, the county’s taxpayers benefit, even if it doesn’t mean a property tax reduction. Avoiding a tax increase is important also.

Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court has been of no help toward resolving the funding issue. In 2012, it handed down a wimpy opinion in response to an effort by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and 10 counties aimed at obtaining the money promised but not delivered.

Rather than handing down a justified opinion — one that would have put pressure on the state to live up to its funding pledge — the court ruled that “further enhancements” of the state courts should be produced by the three branches of government working together, not simply by way of a high court ruling.

However, that “working together” apparently never materialized — or at least not in the spirit that the high court seemed to suggest.

The sought-after money hasn’t been forthcoming, and there have been no news accounts of any concerted efforts by the three branches — and no leadership by the high court — focusing on the funding in question. And, while the state currently pays the salaries of the common pleas and magisterial district judges, court administrators and district attorneys, that isn’t enough funding to cover the cost of court staff, office operations and related expenses.

That doesn’t square with a 1987 Supreme Court ruling proposing that the state take over funding and administration of the county courts.

This year’s funding announcement makes clear that not enough “squeaky wheels” are delivering messages to Harrisburg.

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