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Budget cuts impact role of public defenders

Fri, Jul 11th, 2008
Posted in Government

PRESTON - Judge Robert Benson discussed the state cut back of funding for the Public Defender Office with the Fillmore County Board at their July 8 meeting. Benson explained that public defenders will no longer provide service for parents with Child in Need of Help or Protection (CHIPS) cases or in cases for termination of parental rights. He added that 69 attorneys have been laid off with state funding cut backs.

CHIPS is a program under Minnesota Statute Chapter 260C. CHIPS "identifies cases where the State's Social Service office becomes involved in family matters where allegations exist related to juvenile delinquency, truancy, child neglect, or child abuse." The social service department conducts an investigation.

Benson was especially concerned about termination of parental rights cases where he felt parents should have adequate representation because of the finality of these cases. In CHIPS cases the potential harm to parents is not as great. He noted that public defenders are not required by statute to represent parents, but are required to represent the child in these cases.

Judge Benson maintained that parents must meet financial guidelines and be truly indigent to qualify for an attorney appointed by him. He said that by statute he is required to appoint an attorney for those not financially able to hire their own. The question is who pays the court appointed attorney if the state doesn't. He informed the board that the standard rate for the attorney is $100/hour. If the judge appoints an attorney for the parents in these cases, the bill will be sent to the county board for payment. Commissioner Marc Prestby commented that this is just another unfunded mandate. The state has been picking up the costs of these court appointments for the last fifteen years or so. The Public Defenders Office is funded separately from the court.

At least one county has made a stand that they will not pay for these appointments, in an attempt to make a statement to the state legislators and the governor. Benson suggested that if attorneys are not getting paid, they will refuse the appointments. He added that it is helpful that Social Service Director Thomas Boyd and his staff are good at bringing cases to a resolution without needing attorneys.

Chairman Randy Dahl expects that the state can't compel the county boards to pay for the court appointed attorneys this fiscal year, but may require them to next year with the new budget for present and past costs. Benson agreed that the board can probably refuse to pay for that which has not been budgeted for. County Coordinator Karen Brown estimated that it could cost the county about $10,000 for the remainder of the year. Dahl added that with the state passing on the cost, it still is a cost and just a question which tax will pay for it, meaning property taxes or state income tax. He complained that the state is imposing a levy limit of 3.9% and then asks the county to pay for additional costs.

Benson didn't want to get into politics, but admitted that he wasn't happy to see the shift from state to local budgets. County Attorney Kelly Wagner insisted that her department looks at each case and its potential cost as they are aware of budgetary concerns. Benson noted that the entire court system gets less than one and one half percentage of the state budget. He suggested his budget has been cut to the bone. Services to the public have been cut on Thursdays. Jurors now receive $10 per day rather than $20.

Other Business

• With the retirement of Chief Deputy Jack O'Donnell on May 31 and his replacement with Tom Kycek a vacancy was created. Ashley Stinson, Human Resources, said that the Personnel Committee has recommended Les Ladewig to fill the open position of Sheriff's deputy. The board approved the new hire.

• Karen Brown gave an update on the county maps. The maps that had been recently printed were riddled with errors and failed to recognize the Village of Rushford as a city. Brown stated that she was asked to find out how many corrected maps could be printed for $3,000. Cloud Cartographics agreed to redo the front and the back of 3500 maps for that price. The commissioners and others will have the opportunity to proofread the map before the final printing. The board approved the ordering of the proofs and when those are approved, the final printing.

• An amended Commercial Drivers License (CDL) policy for county highway department employees was approved. The policy leaves room for an employee who has lost driving privileges for 90 days or less to either go on an extended leave of absence or to work as a 'laborer' if work is available as determined by the maintenance superintendent or the county engineer. If an employee who is required to have a CDL has his driving privileges suspended more than 90 days with a conviction, he is discharged for just cause.

County Engineer John Grindeland discussed the planned Fixed Base Operator (FBO) building. The construction of the building at the county airport is in question because of state funding that was taken back by the state. Northland Builders has agreed to hold the bid until September 1. If the county were to go ahead, it would need to pay for the building this year, and then, apply for a 50% cost share from the state in the next budget or possibly a 95% share from the federal government. Dahl admitted that there is confusion whether this type of project could qualify for federal funding. He felt that they could get state cost share for sure with the next budget. The board by consensus will wait to get more clarification on federal funding and whether both sources can be applied for.

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