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Crime drives Franklin budget

November 22, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Centralized preliminary hearings and armed probation officers were two items discussed Friday as the Franklin County Board of Commissioners continued work on the 2000 budget.

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The county's six district justices now hold preliminary hearings at their offices around the county, requiring police to drive jailed defendants from Franklin County Prison in Chambersburg to as far away as Mercersburg, Pa., about 25 miles. Court Administrator William Sheaffer, said having hearings in the courthouse will cut transportation costs.

Defendants out on bond would go to the courthouse instead of district justices' offices, while inmates would only have to travel about two miles from the prison, according to Sheaffer.

"It will mean a little more security, a little less cost, a little less delay," he said.

Sheaffer said it would also eliminate travel for attorneys from the District Attorney's and Public Defender's offices. Sheaffer said hearings could be held one day a week with district justices presiding on a rotating basis.

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"It should reduce the jail population 5 to 8 percent," President Judge John R. Walker told the commissioners. The reduction would result from judges hearing bail reduction requests the same day as hearings, instead of scheduling them for a later date.

Walker said additional sheriff's deputies will be needed on days hearings are held. In his budget meeting the previous week, Sheriff Robert Wollyung asked for another full-time and two part-time deputies.

If approved, the centralized hearings could begin next spring, Sheaffer said.

Walker also asked the commissioners to increase the pay of court-appointed lawyers from $40 to $50 an hour, noting the attorneys' fees have not gone up in eight years.

Public Defender Robert J. Trambley asked for another assistant public defender at a salary of $34,000, and another full-time clerk.

Chief Probation Officer Richard Mertz on Friday requested three more officers. The department has 36 now, but he said more are needed to reduce a caseload of about 160 people per officer.

One position is for the electronic monitoring program. Mertz said it is now limited to 50 people, in part because that's the number of monitors the department owns.

He asked for $13,000 to buy eight new systems, mostly to replace worn-out units. The program pays for itself through a user fee of $6.50 per day.

Included in Mertz's request was money to arm a dozen officers.

When asked about the request, Mertz said it was made "because of an increase in violence, an increase in offenders carrying firearms and more night work by our officers."

He said no officers were injured this year, but they are frequently involved in scuffles.

"The prison needs more people, the Public Defender asked for another attorney, the Probation Department asked for more, the sheriff asked for more," Commissioner Bob Thomas said. "The bottom line is the increase in crime is driving this whole thing," he said.

Thomas said he was unsure whether a real estate tax increase will be required in 2000. The county tax is now 22.5 mills with each mill generating about $400,000, he said. One mill represents $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value on a property. More than 60 cents of every dollar the county collected last year went to courts, prison and probation.

Most of the funds for the $56.3 million 1999 budget, about $47.5 million, came from state and federal subsidies, user fees and other charges, according to county records.

A vote on the preliminary 2000 budget is set for Thursday, Dec. 9.

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