For more than two decades, Bucks County residents who declared bankruptcy could avoid a trip to federal Bankruptcy Court in Center City and instead attend required meetings in the county - an important advantage for financially strapped people who don't need the added transportation and parking costs.
But last month, to save the federal government money, the U.S. Trustee Office in Philadelphia notified local bankruptcy lawyers that beginning Dec. 9, their Bucks County clients who file for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy would have to head into the city for the meetings.
The lawyers complained that the change would hurt their already cash-strapped clients and asked the Trustee Office to reconsider. Late last week, a resolution was reached after Middletown Township officials offered the free use of their public meeting room four days a month at the municipal building in Langhorne.
"It really helps out a lot of people in Bucks," said bankruptcy lawyer Scott F. Waterman, the Pennsylvania chairman of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, who said the trip into Philadelphia could be especially onerous for a meeting that generally takes just 15 minutes.
Acting Middletown Township Manager Debby Lamanna said Tuesday that an ordinance already was in place allowing nonprofit groups and government agencies to use the municipal building when it is open and available. The supervisors, she said, "looked at it as a community service" that would be without cost to township taxpayers.
For many people who live in Bucks County, "even the fact of having to go downtown is stressful because not everyone is terribly familiar with it," Lamanna said. Allowing the use of the public meeting room, she said, might reduce the stress.
The flap over the location of Bankruptcy Court meetings came as bankruptcy filings in eastern Pennsylvania remained 50 percent higher than in 2007, as individuals, families, and businesses filed for court relief from debt. Filings jumped from 10,461 in 2007 to 15,813 in 2010. Most were personal bankruptcies.
While bankruptcies in Philadelphia were up 7 percent in 2010 over 2007, in Bucks County, they were up 86 percent; in Montgomery County, they were up 107 percent; Chester County 100 percent; in Delaware County 65 percent.
Local bankruptcy lawyers were unhappy with the shift to Center City.
"It was a big change for us," said Joshua Z. Goldblum, a consumer bankruptcy lawyer in Feasterville who helped broker the resolution. He said lawyers and clients were glad that the U.S. Trustee Office reconsidered and signed off on the new location late last week.
"In the end, it's a fine resolution for everyone," said Goldblum, who said meetings would be held in Middletown starting in February.
Having the hearings back in the county will be in keeping with a tradition that lawyers said goes back 25 to 30 years. Most recently, the hearings were held at a Trevose hotel, but they also have been held at the courthouse in Doylestown and in Buckingham Township.
The meetings at issue are with members of the U.S. Trustee Office, which administers bankruptcy cases. Those who file for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy are required to attend a brief meeting so that trustees can inquire about assets.
The meetings are held in Center City for residents of Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. Chester County residents who file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy attend meetings in West Chester.
Waterman said the resolution shows what happens when people work together: "There is a happy ending."