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March 8, 2014

Cambria officials fear loss of judge

EBENSBURG — As officials work toward reducing employee numbers in anticipation of a change in the county’s class designation, Cambria’s declining population should have minimal if any immediate impact on the number of judges on the bench of the court of common pleas.

Currently, Cambria has five sitting judges and two senior judges who regularly handle criminal and civil cases.

But the elephant in the room, for Cambria and all other counties, are the result and conclusions of a statewide study set to get underway this month.

It will attempt to define the time needed by judges to handle a wide variety of criminal and civil cases, and which if any of the state’s 67 counties have too many or not enough jurists.

“The common pleas judges complement is set by (state) statute, so there will be no immediate change,” said Steve Schell of the state court administrator’s office in Harrisburg.

Cambria has steadily lost population at a rate of about 1,000 people per year for the past half-century. The 2010 census, which put the county at under 144,000, was low enough to bump Cambria from fourth class to fifth class. But in the hopes of a rebound, the county has until the 2020 census to turn things around.

If the tide is not reversed, the county’s population could be as low as 133,000 by the next census, President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said.

The drop in class size will mean a loss of some state and federal funding and likely the loss of two row officers.

Officials anticipate that the office of register of wills, now held by Patty Sharbaugh, and the office of recorder of deeds, held by Andrea Fedore Simms, will be combined. Blending also is likely to occur with the offices of clerk of courts, held by Susan Kuhar, and prothonotary, held by Deb Martella.

Along with the lower classification will be a significant drop in the number of employees the county needs to provide services.

Hoping to trim the numbers through attrition, the commissioners are working toward a goal of one county employee for every 214 residents, meaning the 852 employees on the payroll at the end of 2013 will have to be reduced to 622 by 2021.

The plan is disconcerting to Cambria County President Judge Timothy Creany, who hopes that if the population continues to drop, whoever is in the commissioners’ office in 2021 will consider Cambria outside of state employee ratios.

“My thought is that we have to provide the services. I don’t think bringing employee levels down to a fifth-class county is right,” he said.

The statewide study gets underway March 17 by the National Center for State Courts, a  group hired by the state Supreme Court to undertake an initiative never before attempted in Pennsylvania.

The length of time generally needed to handle general case types such as criminal, civil, family, orphans and juvenile will be studied.

According to AOPC Connected, a newsletter published by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the study will require common pleas judges statewide to report for one month the time spent on their cases and other tasks they perform.

All information will be submitted on hearings, settlement conferences, writing opinions and administrative duties.

After the information is analyzed, it will be used to give the state’s General Assembly a yardstick to consider filling judicial vacancies or creating new judgeships, according to information provided by the state court administrator.

The study was a topic of discussion at the late February meeting of the Conference of State Trial Judges, which was attended by Cambria jurists.

“They’re going to look at the demands on our courts and make some determinations,” Creany said.

Concerns raised by Creany and Judge Norman Krumenacker, who is set to step in as president judge when Creany is forced to retire at the end of 2015, is that consideration is given to the makeup of each county.

“We have a significant caseload,” Creany said. “We have a situation, particularly in the city of Johnstown, where we have a significant drug problem.”

Drug cases at one time accounted for about 60 percent of the cases through the Cambria County courts. That figure is now 75 percent to 80 percent, Creany said.

Further increasing the statistics are the petty crimes of retail thefts and bad checks, ways addicts use to get money to support a habit.

On the criminal end, Creany compares Cambria to other fourth-class counties with larger population or even some third-class counties.

Not only does Cambria have a high criminal caseload, but many are serious crimes, he said, citing the high murder rate in recent years.

“I don’t think we are overstaffed. I know that our probation officers are carrying twice the load the state recommends,” he said. “Despite the population drop, the criminal activity is really the controlling issue.”

Consideration has to be given to unique circumstances, Krumenacker said, citing Bedford County, with two judges, and Somerset County with three as not overstaffed, largely because of the Pennsylvania Turnpike which crosses through both counties.

“It’s more complex than population,” he said. “One shoe does not fit all.”

Krumenacker cited family law as an area exploding in the courts.

“Nowadays, everybody has to fight,” he said. “We may need more than one judge designated for family law.”

Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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