County forced to cover Indigent Defense Office budget deficitBy Shar Porier
Wick News Service
BISBEE — The Indigent Defense Office of the county has run over budget by $572,000 so far in the fiscal 2008-09 year.
The county Board of Supervisors had no choice but to cover the obligation with money from the general fund contingency with a unanimous vote during the regular meeting Tuesday.
County Administrator Mike Ortega explained the situation to supervisors Pat Call, Ann English and Richard Searle.
The department’s $3.3 million budget for the year has been exceeded and trying to estimate additional funds that may be necessary to meet needs through the year’s end is difficult, according to Ortega. In the past year, far more serious crimes, like murder and sexual assault, have been committed and the Indigent Defense Office has had to reach deep to cover defense costs for those accused of crimes.
Attempting to deal with this issue in advance of coming budget talks, Ortega has assigned Deputy County Administrator Jim Vlahovich to analyze where expenses can be cut when it comes to providing qualified counsel for those who cannot afford their own attorney.
This will include a systemic review of how cases are processed and will extend into the fee schedule to determine who is eligible for indigent defense.
Because some of the attorneys in the county Indigent Defense Office do not have the necessary experience to defend, for example, a murder suspect, an experienced contract defense attorney must be hired. That tends to cost the county in the neighborhood of $100 an hour. Add in the cost of other experts for defense testimony and the cost rises considerably.
Vlahovich plans to look into the indigent defense programs in other counties and see how other systems work.
With that information in hand, he can review the types of cases and what the average number of hours per case should cost.
He also will compare the costs of hiring an indigent defense attorney on a hourly case by case basis with a salaried attorney with the needed expertise.
In the near future, the county may hire someone to oversee the Indigent Defense Office which includes the public defender and the legal defender, as suggested by Ortega.
Just two months ago, the supervisors had to pull $150,000 out of the contingency fund to cover the cost of juries due to an increase of jury trials. Ortega now sees another $87,000 in jury costs that will have to come from contingency funds before the end of the year.
In other business:
• Approved 1.4 miles of Pearce Road and 0.25 miles of Fourth Street as established county roads in District 3. The resolution also authorizes the future acquisition of 200 additional feet of Fourth Street. The dirt roads will be upgraded and double-chip-sealed at a cost of around $150,000. Funding for these roads was raised through land auctions in Pearce.
• Approved chip-sealing one-third of a mile of Cemetery Road from Pomerene Road north in District 3. Drainage issues also will be addressed.
• Approved work sessions to discuss the 2009-10 highway and floodplain department budget, funding awards from Local Transportation Assistance Funding II and the new electronic test range area established in Senate Bill 1387.
• Approved the re-appointment of Sandra Smith to a second four-year term as the District 1 representative to the county Board of Health.
• Approved the appointment of Democratic Precinct Committee members: Marv Sorenson, Precinct 01 Benson; Kenneth Davis, Precinct 04, San Pedro; Raymond Rogers, Precinct 11 Bisbee/Warren; Bernice Grijalva, Precinct 14 Calvary; Rose Bowser, Precinct 21 Greater San Pedro; Edith Mae White, Precinct 24 McNeal and John Viverto, Precinct 25 Naco.
• Two items were pulled from the agenda due to lack of information. One concerns a request for $2,500 by the Southeast Arizona Development Group to promote solar and alternative energy workshops for county residents. The second is a $229,000 contract award with Pavex Corporation for a lighting and signage upgrade project at the Cochise County Airport.