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Westmoreland

Funding cutbacks could limit Westmoreland Bar Association's pro bono program

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, 5:36 p.m.
John Ranker, attorney at John M. Ranker & Associates in downtown Greensburg, is the new president of the Westmoreland Bar Association.
John Ranker, attorney at John M. Ranker & Associates in downtown Greensburg, is the new president of the Westmoreland Bar Association.

Funding cutbacks could limit or potentially shutter the Westmoreland County Bar Association’s pro bono program, which provides free legal representation for low-income residents, officials said Wednesday.

The mostly volunteer program operates out of offices at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg and last year handled more than 3,500 cases, according to Executive Director David Millstein.

Volunteer lawyers are used to handle domestic, custody and civil matters, including landlord-tenant disputes and property issues. It operates on an annual donation from the county’s bar association and funding from its separate charitable arm, the Westmoreland Bar Foundation.

The foundation pulled its annual allocation, about $45,000, Millstein said, leaving the office with its staff of one full-time and one part-time employee without enough money to continue its current scope of operations.

“I have yet to see any concrete proposal that will secure enough funding to keep the office operating,” Millstein said.

Millstein receives no pay for his role as executive director of the office.

Bar Association President John Ranker conceded that the foundation’s decision to halt funding has resulted in an uncertainty of how the pro bono office will function into 2019, but said there are no current plans to shutter the operation.

“We believe there are still enough funds available for us to continue operating,” Ranker said.

The office currently operates with a $90,000 annual budget, according to Millstein.

David DeRose, a Greensburg lawyer who serves as chairman of the bar foundation, said funding sources used to pay for the pro bono office have dried up.

“With the rising costs of a very successful program, we’ve expanded and took it to a new level. But that came with an additional expense,” DeRose said. “We’re trying to figure out another way to keep it in place the same way it operates now or something similar.”

Tax returns filed by the Westmoreland Bar Foundation in 2016, the last year publicly available, showed the organization listed more than $688,000 in total assets while generating less than $70,000 in new contributions.

DeRose said without additional funding sources, the foundation can no longer pay the current price tag for the program.

“We have to operate from within a budget. If we continue to operate in the fashion we’ve been operating, with no new resources, the foundation resources will be depleted,” DeRose said. In addition to the pro bono program, the foundation finances scholarships and other charitable activities throughout the county.

Ranker said early discussions to keep the program operating have involved using bar association staff to handle administrative duties out of the organization’s Greensburg offices, while still keeping a presence at the courthouse.

Additional efforts to secure more funding are ongoing, Ranker said.

“That’s the worst-case scenario, the cutbacks, but our goal is to continue the pro bono program. It’s a good program and it helps a whole lot of people in our community that need the service. It’s a very valuable service to the community,” Ranker said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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