Opinion

Soundoff: Island County Public Defender's increase justified

By Tom Pacher

I wasn't going to re-visit the issue of our contract to provide public defense services again, but your recent editorial and one elected official have been giving your readers the wrong impression, to say the least. I wanted to take one last time to address this, even though much of this has been addressed before. From recent comments among the employees of at least one county department, I am concerned that the News-Times and that a particular elected official are perpetuating incorrect information that many folks during tough budgetary times will only find confusing and misleading.

As I have mentioned before, the need for the increased staffing for public defense in this county is the result of the state bar association adopting caseload standards for the first time ever, a little over a year ago. The need for staffing is driven primarily by theses standards, which were adopted by Island County earlier this year. Furthermore, even if the standards had not been adopted by the county, in the event any litigant wished to pursue a claim related to his/her attorney's work, the standards set by the state bar could very well be viewed as the relevant standard.

Once again, neither myself, my office, nor anyone working in my office had anything to do with producing those standards. My office is tasked with complying with those standards, but we were not involved with creating them in any way.

Additionally, several facts seem to keep getting lost in some of the rhetoric surrounding our work. I understand that these are tough budget times. However, the net effect to the county in the extension granted is nowhere near as large as the News-Times nor that elected official would have people believe.

As previously mentioned, almost one-third of that increase comes from state money. That money cannot go to pay for any other programs in the county, nor can it go to the budget of any county department. It specifically is provided for public defense, and either for meeting or taking substantial steps in meeting the standards in question. For reasons previously discussed, in this county, that meant meeting the standards.

We have taken over the second floor in the building in which we are located. The county was still on the hook for a lease for that floor into the year 2011, and we are saving the county nearly $14,000 a year just on the lease. Add in the costs of electric, water, sewer, and grounds maintenance, and there is likely another $3,000 to $4,000. The county previously contracted out services for other services in district court. My offices have taken over those duties, saving the county over $50,000 per year. Again, these are neither services nor savings that any county department could provide.

Without going into all of the detail previously provided, I estimated that roughly 90 percent in 2010, on a conservative estimate, of the increase in our budget would come from the state or from savings realized by the county when my firm took over the additional space and duties. To claim now that "giving extra money to the public defender's office earlier this year came back to bite the commissioners when the Deputies' Guild was asked to give up some benefits" is misleading at best.

With the state bar standards in mind, it is a simple matter of viewing previous years and dividing the work among lawyers and staff. There is nothing mysterious about this, and I have addressed this both in writing here and to the county commissioners. This is not an extravagance, nor is it profligate spending by the county. It is a simple matter of the county following the law, and my firm stepping forward with what is necessary to provide services to meet the law.

The alternative to meeting these standards would have been to face a possible problem like that which erupted in Grant County several years ago. Grant County's public defense system was set up with several problems, and in the end, Grant County paid $500,000 just in lawyers' fees to settle the mess they had created or allowed to be created.

Had Island County simply chosen to ignore the state bar standards, something that would at least seem to be implied in the line of thinking offered up by the News-Times, it would have been putting the county at severe financial risk just a short ways down the road. I would dare say that those who seem to think we can somehow just overlook such standards would certainly have a word or two of complaint if they got a bill for $500,000 to settle a problem their elected officials could foresee coming and simply chose to ignore, and then saw their public defense costs more than double what they are now.

Island County had been paying approximately $8 per capita under the previous contract. Once the standards were adopted by the state bar association, it became necessary to address that level. State average was last reported to be approximately $15 per capita. By my estimates, Island County, at proper staffing for public defense is paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $12.50 to $13 per capita. Still under the state average, but in a range that is likely to be considered safe for the county and its citizens. After watching their public defense system implode, Grant County reportedly now pays somewhere around $30 per capita for public defense services.

Another statement from the News-Times shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of our work. The News-Times refers to it as "defending criminals." In the first place, every person charged with any crime is presumed innocent. Some are in fact acquitted or otherwise see their cases concluded without a criminal conviction, so that statement is clearly inane. Additionally, we also represent persons in cases where the state is seeking to take children away from their parents. These cases are called "dependencies" and don't involve criminal charges at all. We also handle truancies, at risk youth, advise juveniles at court when they don't have an attorney, and many other things that would not constitute "defending criminals?" Referring to our work as "defending criminals" is lamentable and narrow-minded.

We aren't just some faceless business either, we are your neighbors. Our main office is in Coupeville. Most of our operations are in Coupeville. Eight out of 9 people who work in this office live in Island County, myself included. We live here, work here, shop here, support local businesses and share in the same concerns the rest of the community shares. One-third of our employees are married to active-duty Navy personnel. We support the community in many ways. Making sure that the job of public defense gets done correctly is just one such way.

In closing, we agree with the News Times that "cool heads" are needed here. Fomenting discontent, perpetuating stereotypes, and feeding readers incorrect or misleading information would hardly seem to qualify.

Tom Pacher heads the Island County Public Defender's Office.

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