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Island County public defender refuses to cut budget

The attorney who contracts with Island County to provide public defense to indigent individuals received a 50 percent increase in his contract a few months ago, but now he refuses to share in the pain of budget cuts.

Tom Pacher took some serious heat from Island County Commissioner Angie Homola at a meeting Wednesday, but he didn’t budge from his position. Homola was clearly displeased that Pacher, who runs the seven-attorney law firm in Coupeville, refused the county’s request that he accept a 5 percent decrease in his contract.

The tense exchange began with Homola asking Pacher why he was unwilling to reduce the contracted amount to help the county in a difficult budget time. County commissioners were forced to reduce the current expense budget by $5.2 million over the last year; in the third round of budget cutting in a year, they faced a $1.2 million deficit. Just about every county department was cut to the bone, with law-and-justice departments being hit with 4.5 or 5 percent cuts in the latest rounds.

Homola pointed out that Pacher’s contract was increased in September by about 50 percent, from $380,000 to $560,000 a year, after the commissioners adopted new caseload standards which set state guidelines in stone. The increase was to allow Pacher to hire enough attorneys and other personnel to meet the standards.

Homola voted against the contract, which the other two commissioners approved.

In his defense, Pacher told the commissioners Wednesday that he simply couldn’t cut any expenses and meet the caseload standards that the commissioners adopted. He’s already hired the new attorneys.

“It’s simply a matter of math as far as caseloads and the number of attorneys necessary,” he said.

The county sent a letter to Pacher last month requesting that he reduce his budget by as much as $31,690. He responded with a four-page letter explaining that he spent hours examining the issue and couldn’t find anywhere to cut. He argued that cutting his budget wouldn’t save the county money anyway because the county would end up hiring more outside attorneys to handle what his firm couldn’t.

But Homola wasn’t convinced.

“I was hoping you could at least come to some compromise and help us out,” she said.

Next, Homola questioned Pacher about the caseload statistics that were submitted to the county. She asked Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks to address the board with his concerns.

Banks, in comments Pacher described as “inflammatory,” explained that he became suspicious about the numbers after noticing that Pacher claimed to have defended 200 juvenile cases so far this year, while his office only prosecuted 135.

“I couldn’t figure out who was the other prosecutor in Island County filing juvenile cases behind my back,” he said sarcastically. “I don’t think there is one.”

Banks said he went through all the juvenile case numbers and figured out that Pacher was “double and triple counting cases.”

“Some of the same cases show up three, four, five, six times,” he said. “Same cases.”

Banks said the defense contract clearly explains how cases should be counted to avoid such inflation; he wrote the language himself.

Pacher countered that Banks’ comments were “unnecessarily inflammatory.” He said many of the cases were counted more than once because they were resolved, but then came back to court because the juvenile violated a court-ordered condition.

“When someone comes back on five probation violations, that’s a lot of work,” he said.

Pacher added he was just counting the cases in the way the county’s public defense administrator had instructed him to.

In addition, Pacher said he had no motive for purposely inflating the caseload. Whether it’s one case or 200, he said, he would still need an attorney to handle juvenile cases. Either way, he doesn’t get any more money.

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