Berks County commissioners discuss constable system costs

READING — Taxpayers in Berks County paid far more than those in any other county in Pennsylvania to subsidize constables working in a single municipality — with an estimated $400,000 going to pay constables in 2017.

That was the assessment the Reading Eagle delivered in a series of articles published earlier this year highlighting an analysis that showed that while about $880,000 in taxpayer-funded server fees was paid to constables working out of Reading courts, fines flowing back into the system fell short by at least $398,000.

Before county commissioners decide whether to recommend changes to the system, they want a better understanding of the factors driving those costs and a thorough examination of how much is going unpaid.

"We have been talking about the possibility of looking at the financial aspect of the constable system so we actually understand where the costs are coming from and how much money is coming in," commissioners Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach said Thursday afternoon at their budget and operations meeting.

Constables are paid to serve arrest warrants, among other things, at the behest of the judges who run district courts. The typical fee for serving each outstanding warrant is $27.50 and many offenders have multiple warrants. The system is designed to levy server fees on offenders to repay the system.

But those payments may not come for years — if at all.

Leinbach said the main goal of the financial investigation would be to find problems in the system and determine what changes could be made to lower costs while making the system more effective.

It could also help inform his position on legislation proposed by state Rep. Barry Jozwiak, a Bern Township Republican, that would phase out the constable system through attrition and shift their duties to county sheriff departments.

"We need to understand what impact that would have on county government," he said. "I have said, and I continue to believe, that constables have a legitimate role to play and it's hard for me to believe that with all that constables do it would be cheaper somehow for deputies to do them."

But in order to conduct the financial investigation, it will take cooperation from leaders of various county offices to track down the figures needed for such a review. Clerk of Courts James P. Troutman, Controller Sandy Graffius, Sheriff Eric J. Weaknecht, District Judge Gail M. Greth and President Judge Thomas G. Parisi — who has oversight of the 17 county district courts — offered their support to the investigation and said they would assist in any way they could.

Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt suggested they meet once a month to share their findings.

"It seems like everyone is engaged in trying to figure this out," he said. "Something needs to be improved but we don't know what that is right now. We will, hopefully, know more by the end of the year."

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