Delaware and Otsego counties are among five in the state ineligible for state indigent legal services funding this year.
Under the provisions of the Indigent Legal Services Fund, the two counties did not exceed by $1 their local expenses for providing attorneys to eligible defendants and will therefore lose their share of the $76.5 million fund, according to the state comptroller's office.
Delaware County had been projected to receive $132,640 from the fund in 2009. Otsego County was slated for $234,122.
"Because we didn't spend as much money as we did last year or more, we get nothing," Delaware County Treasurer Beverly Shields said.
Shields said it is impossible to forecast how much the county will spend defending people accused of crimes who can't afford an attorney. For one thing, she said, the number of crimes in any given year can't be predicted. In addition, there may be big trial cases one year and none the next.
Shields and Otsego County Treasurer Myrna Thayne said they were notified of the funding withdrawal this week.
"We had suspected we would not receive it this year," Thayne said.
She said the county spent $776,135 on indigent defense last year. It spent $916,249 in 2007, according to state Comptroller's Office records.
"One other way to look at it is you are saving money," Thayne said.
But with no way to predict what the expenses may be for this year, the potential effect of not getting the funding can't be known, Thayne said.
Otsego County Public Defender Richard "Otto" Rothermel said the logic behind the state's funding formula creates a situation where counties are encouraged to increase their spending annually.
"The good news is the county saved over what it budgeted for last year," Rothermel said. "Next year, we ought to be eligible."
But there is no way of knowing what the caseload may be in 2009, he said.
Even if the caseload is the same, an increase in the number of cases where there are conflicts precluding the public defenders office from representing a defendant could increase the overall amount spent on indigent legal services, Rothermel said.
Part-time public defenders are on salary, while assigned counsel are paid by the hour.
"The cost for us handling cases is significantly less," Rothermel said.
Last year, about half of the money the county spent went to assigned counsel. However, assigned counsel only had about 20 percent of the cases, Rothermel said.
The state, through the governor's executive budget proposal, is considering allowing the comptroller to dole out aid based on a three-year average, preventing a county from losing its aid based on a year-to-year drop.