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Constables make case for their value

| Thursday, July 19, 2012, 10:33 a.m.
Nearly 20 constables gather for an informational meeting between State Rep. Mike Reese, Mt. Pleasant Township, Republican and Westmoreland County Sheriff Jon Held at the Ligonier Town Hall on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

Constables from three counties told state Rep. Mike Reese and Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held on Wednesday that “a few bad apples” in their field have resulted in a loss of warrant activities and cost some their livelihoods.

“A few uncertified constables have given us all a bad name. I just want some respect for the work I do,” said state constable Keith E. Lewis of Unity Township.

About 20 constables from Westmoreland, Fayette and Allegheny counties attended the informational meeting in Ligonier Town Hall called by Held, a former constable, and Reese, a Mt. Pleasant Township Republican.

Held wants constables to have a larger role in warrant service since a Common Pleas Court order from Judge John Blahovec turned over arrest warrant duties to the county sheriff's office last summer.

County officials predict the change will net the county about $240,000 in new revenue.

However, Held questions the projected savings. A constable for 16 years before his election as sheriff last year, he noted that his office was not provided additional deputies for the warrant service and has incurred added expenses because local constables have been hired to assist.

“The constable system can work if it is well managed. This (court edict) was thrown in my lap, and I can't take care of it all,” Held said.

While the constable expenses for warrant service was reported at $270,190 in 2011, Held maintains that most of that expense is recouped in court costs.

He said the constable expense after the recouped fees are factored is $84,007.

Considering it costs county taxpayers about $47,000 a year in salary and benefits per deputy to serve a warrant, not including vehicle expenses, the amount does not seem excessive, he said.

He said his warrant team now includes six deputies, “two to a team.”

Constable Rocky Younkin of Connellsville said county officials statewide should avoid edicts “that throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Robert Martin of Luzerne Township in Fayette County, said constables have more incentive than deputies. If deputies fail to serve a warrant during a shift, “the county still has to pay them about $20 an hour,” he said. “On the other hand, I don't get paid if I don't pick someone up. I sometimes have to work 12 to 15 hours a day.”

Constable Frank E. DeThomas of Bridgeville in Allegheny County, a member of the state Fraternal Order of Constables, said the organization's proposals mandating training and setting a statewide service fee for serving warrants has made no progress in the legislature.

He noted that constables generate more than $40 million per year to the state treasury and millions more to the municipalities they serve.

Reese said he supports the use of constables, but they should agree to complete “mandated” education and firearms training before taking office.

“Just like when you become an elected district judge, before you're allowed to sit on the bench, if you're not an attorney, you have to complete a training certification course,” he said.

“I'm willing to look at proposed legislation, but there's got to be some give-and-take, like in anything. I think constables ... from looking at the figures they bring in to counties ... give you great bang for your buck,” Reese said.

Held said he plans to continue using constables, but noted that eight of the county's 17 district judges do not want arrest warrants to be served by constables.

“Ultimately, it's their decision,” Held said.

Constable Anne Geiger of Arona questioned Westmoreland's limit on paying only one constable fee per warrant service.

She said in some cases more than one constable is necessary to serve a warrant.

“It's a matter of safety,” she said.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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