2011-03-17 / Front Page

Commissioners Respond To Frivolous Legal Fee Allegations

Commissioners saved $954,658 by using special counsel
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz

In response to allegations made at a recent town meeting in Thompson Township, the Fulton County commissioners and their business manager are publicly clarifying issues surrounding prior union negotiations and the current four-year agreement penned between the county and seven unionized members of the probation and domestic relations departments.

Former county treasurer David Wright initially broached the subject of frivolous legal expenses on March 3 when he questioned why the county spent approximately $130,000 in specialized legal fees in negotiating the contract that began retroactive to January 1, 2007, and concluded December 31, 2010.

At the time, Commissioner Bonnie Mellott Keefer responded that the county is “not in charge” of the probation department. As a result, the decision to hire counsel fell on the shoulders of the president judge of the Fulton County Court of Common Pleas judge.

On Tuesday, Keefer told the “News” that Section 1620 of the county code provides the judiciary the constitutional right to hire, fire and supervise court employees. Meanwhile, the county code also stipulates that the commissioners retain the sole power and responsibility to represent the judges of the Court of Common Pleas in collective bargaining negotiations. In addition, the code also states that the commissioners are required to protect the right of the judiciary to hire, fire and supervise its employees.

Due to these legal restrictions dealing with public employee unions, Keefer noted it was the commissioners decision to retain professional labor counsel.

As additional clarification on the issue of the union contract, business manager Tim Stanton provided the commissioners with a spreadsheet on Tuesday outlining total cost savings achieved through the negotiation process.

Entitled “justification for legal representation,” the docu- ment reports the “net realized cost savings” as of the conclusion of the contract are calculated at $724,577. The biggest saving outlined by Stanton is combined salary increases that would have totalled $425,777 over a five-year period in the event the union’s original proposal presented by Teamsters Local Union No. 992 was accepted. The second largest expenditure would have been a one-hour daily paid meal period for affected employees that has been calculated at $156,186.

Other calculated costs saved through the negotiation process were $78,833, increasing number of paid vacation days; $21,301, an employee personal clothing allowance for court days; $17,500, employee personal auto insurance; $14,000, on-call compensation; $11,720, additional paid holidays; and $4,260, cost of legal representation.

Stanton’s documentation further outlines “future estimated cost savings over a five-year period” in the amount of $333,424. The categories attributed to this total include 100 percent paid tuition for master’s and doctoral college classes; post-retirement healthcare benefits; additional compensation for individuals not on medical plans; and sick leave accrual and buyback.

Legal fees for the services of attorney Kathleen Bruder from Rhoads & Sinon of Harrisburg tallied $103,343 and not approximately $130,000 as aired during the recent town meeting. The negotiations process began in 2005 and the contract was ratified in December 2009.

After subtracting expended legal fees from the net realized cost savings as of December 31 as well as future estimated costs, Stanton concluded specialized counsel used in negotiations saved the county a total of $954,658.

Unionization occurred in September 2005 shortly after a variety of issues ranging from pay raises to safety and equipment precautions came to light. The contract was eventually ratified in December 2009.

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