Island County commissioners are tired of picking up the state’s tab for public defense services.
Last week, the commissioners approved a $61,118-contract with the Washington Office of Public Defense for state-mandated services.
The grant is for “improving the quality of public defense services,” according to the contract.
In 2017, the county spent $941,000 to provide representation at defendants’ first appearances, an investigator position for primary public defense contractor, provider contracts, attorney and staff wages and benefits or expert witness costs, according to Elaine Marlow, General Services Administration director.
“The funds do not cover the basic costs of public defense,” Marlow said at the meeting last week.
As of last Tuesday, $849,1000 had been spent toward the effort so far. Marlow said she predicted total costs will be close to $1 million.
The difference between the grant and actual costs comes from the county current expense fund.
The state also mandates maximum caseload standards for public defense attorneys.
Commissioners bemoaned that the state continues to under-fund the program and increase requirements for it.
“That exponential growth is impacting our ability to provide local services,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson about the increasing costs.
Commissioner Rick Hannold expressed frustration that the Legislature and state supreme court have spent billions on public education, but only provide about 5 percent for this type of mandated service that is also considered a basic right.
In December 2017, the county joined the Washington State Association of Counties in an effort to draw the state’s attention toward unfunded mandates. Public defense was one of the primary examples in that communication effort.
“I’m going to take what we can get,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said before voting to approve the agreement. “… I would encourage our citizens to also talk to their legislators about the fact that we can’t deliver the services that they’re requesting, because we’re covering the services that we’re required to cover on the state’s behalf.”
Hannold sarcastically thanked the state for its contribution before voting “yes.”
“Just don’t spend it all in one place,” he said.