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In Bucks, constables can earn big money

The office's roots date to colonial times, and critics nowadays say the position is about as relevant as minutemen or muskets.

The office's roots date to colonial times, and critics nowadays say the position is about as relevant as minutemen or muskets.

But in Bucks County, more than anywhere else in the region, being a constable can still be lucrative.

Six Bucks constables - elected and armed court officers paid to serve warrants, transport prisoners, and handle other duties - averaged more than $100,000 in pay annually the last two years, eclipsing salaries of the judges they work for and even the county commissioners, according to an Inquirer review of records.

One Bensalem constable collected $360,000 for those two years - far more than any other constable in the region and more than Gov. Corbett.

This year, Bucks County began a review of its constable system. The county is considering a recommendation to bar district judges from hiring constables with whom they share family ties. Constable compensation has not been part of that review.

Still, the size of the payouts struck some officials.

"Oh, my God," County Commissioner Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia said after hearing the details.

"Phew," sighed Robert Pollock, deputy court administrator.

But in the very same county are constables who earned less than $1,000 a year. The numbers vary widely because different courts and counties use the officers in different ways, or not at all.

In Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties, scores of elected constables collect assignments from district judges. In Bucks, for instance, constables typically work for the judges in their home district.

Each task carries a fee fixed by the state - $40 for transporting a prisoner, for instance, and less than $30 for collecting on an old parking ticket.

Philadelphia assigns such duties to police or other court officers. Montgomery County also relies more heavily on local police, though constables are still used for some functions.

"Every county is so different," said Chuck Benhayon, chair of the Bucks County Constables Association. "Sixty-seven different counties. They all utilize constables differently."

In Westmoreland County, about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, sheriff's deputies began fulfilling many constable duties about five years ago, according to Don Heagy, the county's deputy court administrator.

Heagy said that many communities are well-served by constables, but that he sees the post as antiquated. "We've learned in Westmoreland County how to survive, significantly well, without a lot of use of them," he said.

In recent weeks, The Inquirer requested 2012 and 2013 constable pay records from officials in each Southeastern Pennsylvania county. Bucks and Delaware Counties provided names and compensation totals, though not a breakdown of their fees. In Montgomery County, the few constables together earned less than $5,000 a year.

Chester County gave pay amounts but initially declined to release the recipients' names, then said it would do so only under a formal Right-to-Know request.

The records show that Chester County constables were paid a total of $1.6 million in each of the last two years, while Delaware County's constables collected about $1.3 million annually. Bucks topped them both - with constable fees exceeding $2 million a year, the records show. The officers' pay is funded through multiple sources - sometimes through fees assessed on criminal defendants or civil plaintiffs.

One factor driving Bucks County's high earners is workload, officials say. The constables who earned less than $1,000 a year are in the rural upper reaches, while the highest-paid work primarily out of busy courts in more densely populated places such as Bristol Township, Falls Township, and Bensalem.

Bensalem is where Michael Gallagher works, and was working, when he made $360,000 in 2012 and 2013, more than any constable in the region, according to the records. Gallagher, of Bensalem, was first elected in 1996.

In an interview, he did not dispute his compensation, but said he regularly works seven days a week and had not had a vacation in 15 years.

Gallagher also said uncompensated job-related costs eat up almost half his paycheck, including having to pay for his own health insurance and vehicle maintenance.

"By the time it's all said and done, I have a lot of expenses," he said.

Benhayon, who earned more than $290,000 in the two years ending 2013, said he had regularly heard from people envious of his pay. "Then you show them the hours, the workload and what's expected of you," he said, "and they don't want it."

Pollock, the court administrator, said he was unaware of any instances of impropriety in payouts among constables, either because of nepotism or large earnings.

District Attorney David Heckler, a former president judge, agreed, saying he had seen "no evidence of people cooking the books or fudging things."

Highly paid constables simply work hard, Heckler said. "You can make a whole bunch of money, I'm told," he said, "if you figure out how to be efficient."