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May 6, 2014

County's bill for public defenders increases

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The cost of providing legal services to financially struggling people involved in the court system is going up for Otsego County taxpayers.

As part of updating the county budget, the 14-member Board of Representatives is being asked to approve $202,957 in additional spending from the public treasury to cover bills being submitted by lawyers participating in the public defender’s assigned counsel program, officials said Monday.

The infusion of those funds would be amendment to the county’s 2013 budget, and would be added on top of the $480,000 authorized by the county for that fiscal year, County Treasurer Dan Crowell said.

County officials said they reminded lawyers involved in assigned counsel case work recently to submit bills for the work that they did for clients involved in both civil and criminal cases. The treasurer said that in response to those invoices, the county will be sending out checks to 29 lawyers who worked on behalf of Family Court clients, and 17 lawyers representing clients involved in criminal matters.

The clients who received legal help at taxpayers’ expense met the financial qualifications guidelines and were approved by judges to get the aid, Crowell said. The lawyers’ bills, based on an hourly rate, were also approved by judges overseeing the cases in question, he added.

Crowell said that based on his discussion with court staffers, it appears more people were able to qualify because of financial hardships caused by the slow economy and scarcity of jobs.

Assigned counsel throughout the state are paid $60 an hour for misdemeanor cases and $75 an hour for felony cases.

County Rep. Edwin Frazier Jr., R-Unadilla, the chairman of the county board’s Administration Committee, said county officials have no choice but to pay the lawyers’ bills.

“You’re required to pay,” he said. “It’s nothing you can deny.”

Frazier said he expects county representatives will be exploring other options, such as adding staff to the public defender’s office, where a small fleet of assistant public defenders earn a regular salary for handling cases in several local courts.

Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts,, the chairman of the county’s Public Safety Committee, said county government could do a better job managing the expense or providing legal representation to poor people if the lawyers participating in the program sent in their paperwork when assignments are completed.

“They need to be more timely in their billing,” he said.

The spending request was tucked in a list of proposed budget transfers that is expected to be acted on by the Board of Representatives on Wednesday at its monthly meeting in Cooperstown.

County Public Defender Richard “Otto” Rothermel was said to be out of the office Monday and could not be contacted.

Crowell said the county has received grant funding for a “conflict defender’s” program that is expected to reduce reliance on assigned counsel.