Despite state cuts, county pays for public defender

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, November 19, 2008

State budget cuts for public defenders hit home Tuesday when the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners faced whether to go over the budget for court administration in order to pay for defender services no longer covered by the state.

The boards in a few other counties across Minnesota have voted to not pay for the services, while most have gone ahead and paid for them, Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever said.

“There isn’t an action out there that doesn’t have a reaction,” Kluever said.

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The board could choose to pay them, not pay them or pay them later, he pointed out.

The cuts are part of what the state’s been doing to try to reduce costs, he said.

It specifically affects the representation for parents in Children in Need of Protection cases.

The state Public Defender’s Office used to provide those services, but in July it stopped doing so because it faced a $3.9 million budget deficit for the next year.

Now that the state’s not paying and attorneys are still representing people as needed, counties are obligated to make up the difference in the cost of fees, Kluever said.

After discussion about the topic among the commissioners, Kluever, Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson and other court administration personnel, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve $8,500 over the allotted $85,000 line item for in-court administration to make up the difference. The vote took place during the usual claims portion of the county board meeting. Any additional claims for public defenders this year have to be approved by the board.

Before the vote, Commissioner Christopher Shoff questioned whether approving this would mean that the county is paying for both the county attorney and the defense lawyer.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that we’re paying lawyers to argue against our county attorney’s office,” Shoff said.

Nelson said while this is true, he wants to see people realize they are being represented appropriately and that their legal rights have been upheld throughout the process.

“I am a person who is a system person,” he said. “I want the system to work properly.

Nelson said he also has a duty and an obligation to uphold this constitutional right for people who meet the criteria.

There would be legal ramifications involved as well if the county did not provide the legal services that need to be provided. This would lead to greater litigation, appeals and all other sorts of things that would embroil his office and take him away from his day-to-day work that he would prefer to be doing, he said.

Commissioner Dan Belshan asked what the estimated amount overbudget would be through the end of the year.

Kluever said it would be hard to give a good estimate, but it would be somewhere between the $8,500 already over and $20,000.

“I can’t personally see not paying these lawyers for the job they’ve done,” Commissioner Mark Behrends said. “If we say we’re not going to pay them now, I assume they will not be doing the work for us in the future.”

Nelson said if this situation is not addressed by the Legislature, the county is going to be incurring greater expenses in this area. What Freeborn County would probably do, and what most counties are doing in this area, is to seek proposals from private lawyers to do the work privately. Hopefully there could be some hourly savings going through this route.

He said he did not want to be involved in the negotiating process for this as he would be the lawyers’ opposition, but he would be willing to put together a request for proposals.

Kluever is recommending double the $85,000 for the line item in the 2009 budget to help deal with this issue.

In other action, the commissioners:

– Approved a conditional use permit request by Kris Rugland for industrial waste application on parcels within Shell Rock and London townships for an interim period ending Dec. 31, 2012.

Rugland is required to obtain and supply the county with written permission from each landowner to accept this waste and record the conditional use permit onto their parcel.

The waste will be spread as a dry product in the fall seasons.

There will be pre-application soil tests done on every 40-acre parcel involved.

– Approved a Minnesota Department of Health Assurances and Agreements document.

The document is approved every year and is several pages long. It outlines the federal and state regulations tied to the Health Department’s grant dollars, Freeborn County Public Health Director Lois Ahern said.

It has to be approved annually to comply with the Local Public Health Act.

– Approved a five-year Minnesota Counties Computer Cooperative contract with ACS State and Local Solutions. This is for the county Department of Health’s software package.

– Approved a purchase of service agreement for juvenile detention services between the Brown County Evaluation Center Inc. in New Ulm and Freeborn County Court Services.

The local court services has had a contract with the Brown County Evaluation Center since 2001, said Tom Jensen with Freeborn County. The only change in the agreement for 2009 is that the charge will go from $195 per day per youth to $199 per day.

– Voted to reclassify the office support worker position in the Freeborn County Extension Office from a grade 6 step 12 on the county’s pay scale to a grade 7 step 7, retroactive July 1.

Kluever said this position has been carrying on additional duties for a while now, and that’s why he asked for it to be retroactive.

– Voted to extend the lease on three of the vehicles within the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office, in what will be a cost-saving manner to the county.