MAYVILLE – The numerous arrests in Chautauqua County on Wednesday may bring some additional costs to an already exploding legal budget.
Chautauqua County Attorney Steve Abdella said that the arrests could result in additional costs to the county’s budget for the public defenders’ office and, more specifically, to the fees for assigned counsel.
“You will always have a need for assigned counsel; it’s just another state mandate that the county has to bear,” said Abdella. Anyone who has been charged with a crime, as well as people with family court matters, like child custody, are entitled to legal counsel if they cannot afford a lawyer.
The assigned counsel budget was $760,000 in 2013 and the amount is expected to approach $1 million in 2014. The fees for attorneys who are assigned to represent people range from $60 to $75 an hour, Abdella said. He said judges can appoint attorneys to represent clients for different reasons. Among the reasons, Abdella said, was when one or more defendants are charged in a case. A case from Frewsburg in 2013 involved four suspects charged with murder and other felonies. Only one person could be represented by the public defender’s office. The other three people who were charged were given attorneys that were assigned.
Recently, Jason Wells, of Fredonia, was represented by Attorney Lyle Hajdu, an assigned counsel. Nathaniel Barone, head of the public defender’s office for the county, said he was not sure the reason for Wells receiving someone outside of his office, as he was not in his position in 2010 when Wells was charged.
“There must have been some conflict with a person from the PD office representing him,” Barone said in a recent interview.
It has been an unusual time for Chautauqua County as several murder trials, all with public defender attorneys or assigned council, have occurred or will be scheduled in the near future.
County taxpayers support the majority of the $1.7 million public defender’s office budget. About $389,000 is received from state grant funds to help with the costs.
Abdella said that the county has been looking for ways to reduce the legal fees. He said that counties have options when it comes to providing legal services to the “indigent” or those who cannot afford to hire their own legal counsel. He said some counties contract with a “legal aid” type of service. He added that the legal aid service would still be limited to handling only one person in a case.
A request for proposals was issued and two legal firms replied to provide “legal aid services,” Abdella said. The replies came in late Wednesday and Abdella said he would not reveal names because he had not had a chance to review them. He said he would report to the county’s audit committee at the next meeting in August.
“Because all these expenses have been on the increase, we have had discussions with members of the legislature who desire to check into alternatives,” Abdella said.
He said if contracting with a legal aid group could reduce costs, it would most likely not start until January 2015.
Abdella confirmed that another area that the county will look into is sharing services of public defenders. Barone confirmed that his office was contacted by legislators about this.
“This is done in other counties in New York,” said Abdella. He noted that the size of Chautauqua County and the distance between courts in this county and neighboring counties may make the program more difficult. Erie and Cattaraugus County public defenders were asked to consider this as an option, according to Barone.
Further details about the costs of defense funds for county residents are expected to be revealed at the legislature’s August session.