Commissioners debate contract for grand jury court reporter

County commissioners were hesitant to approve a contract Tuesday providing reporting services for the Centre County grand jury until a cost estimate was attached to the proposal.

A grand jury is set to convene in the county pursuant to a request made in August by District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. The request stated that the grand jury should be convened to consider “at least one unsolved murder, and a recent series of cases the scope of which cannot be determined without the powers granted to a county investigating grand jury.”

Court administrator Kendra Miknis requested the commissioners consider approving a contract between the county and Boring Court Reporting Inc. to provide reporting services for the grand jury from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, 2016.

Miknis said there was no definite cost attached to the contract at this point as it’s difficult to put an exact number on the process. As with court reporting, she said, it’s unknown what number of pages will come out of the proceedings.

Vice Chairman Chris Exarchos said before the county gets into this venture, he would like the DA to put some sort of number into the project for budget reasons and so taxpayers know what the county is getting into. The numbers don’t have to be precise, he said, but someone should be able to estimate a cost.

“I’m reluctant to approve this until we know where this is going,” he said.

Chairman Steve Dershem agreed, saying the county would provide funds for court reporters, but within some context. Even if the cost exceeds original estimates, the board can add an addendum.

“We can’t sign a series of open-ended contracts,” he said. “You have to put a not-to-exceed or some cost, even if adult services or MH/ID.”

Calling a grand jury is not an unplanned event, Exarchos said. In cases and trials involving murder or other expensive trials that are not budgeted, the county has contingencies.

“This is a scheduled, planned event,” he said. “You need to have a budget for it.”

One of the challenges between the judiciary and the commissioners is trying to be conscious of spending taxpayer money, Commissioner Michael Pipe said. The judicial side is most interested in the best administration of justice.

“Not that the courts don’t want to be wise with tax dollars,” he said, “but they may want to implement certain proceedings.”

A grand jury happens to be something that’s going to be difficult to control costs, he said. The dollars spent will be determined by how long it runs, how many witnesses are called, and so on.

The commissioners unanimously agreed to table the request until more information could be provided.

In other business, commissioners verified that county employees have been notified of a possible 4 percent salary increase for next year. Exarchos said this is still only a preliminary figure as the state budget remains at an impasse.

Exarchos credited the jump, which typically has been between 1 to 2 percent in past years, to recent renegotiations in county health care contracts. Health care for employees was headed for a 20 percent increase, he said, but was renegotiated to about minus 4 percent.

“We had to tinker with the copays,” he said, “but it was substantial savings.”

County Administrator Tim Boyde said while deductibles for employees will be increasing, employee obligations will not change. Until discussions become more detailed, he said, it would be inappropriate to discuss the change.

Pipe said while he wants to reward employees for doing excellent work, they should be cautious of a 4 percent increase until budget discussions have concluded.

Regarding the state budget impasse, Exarchos reiterated that the county will remain in good shape till December. By January, the county may seek to borrow a “substantial” amount of money to make it till the next quarter in April.