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County Commissioners say budget cuts needed to afford indigent defense raise

By Pilar Arias, pilar.arias@kvia.com
Published On: Mar 28 2014 12:08:38 AM CDT
Updated On: Mar 28 2014 04:10:31 PM CDT

In order to pay for a pay increase for indigent defense attorneys, the county is going to have to face budget cuts in other departments.

EL PASO, Texas -

El Paso County Commissioners say budget cuts will have to happen in order to pay for a raise for court-appointed attorneys.

The four precinct commissioners and County Judge Veronica Escobar say they were disappointed a special session had to occur, since Monday is a holiday, after they requested the Council of Judges to not go through with the rate increase for indigent defense private attorneys.

When criminal defendants with misdemeanors or felonies can't afford a lawyer, a judge will assign one from a wheel-style list. The list is comprised of about 300 private attorneys and 34 public defenders.

El Paso County Commissioners and Council of Judges don't agree on whether to give indigent defense attorneys appointed by the court a raise.

"We want to remind them that that means a half a million dollar hit to the organization and that means a half a million dollar hit to the taxpayer in the middle of a budget year," Judge Escobar said about a letter the commissioners agreed to send the Council of Judges.

On Thursday, commissioners met in executive session to determine just how the county would afford it. When it was determined it will put the county $500,000 over budget this fiscal year, and $1 million every year after that, commissioners made a bold decision to decide not to increase taxes.

"What does that mean," Judge Escobar asked. "We immediately need to go to our budget hearings and identify cuts."

The debate comes the same week Precinct Three County Commissioner Vince Perez has requested the Texas Indigent Defense Commission do an audit of judges to determine if the wheel list process needs readjustments.

"When you look at the report that I submitted to the state there's a very small number of attorneys that are getting a majority of the funds," Commissioner Perez said.
  
384th District Court Judge Patrick Garcia says the rate increase to $90 an hour in court, $75 an hour for work on a case out of court only goes into effect for lawyers assigned a case after April 1 and the county will have to pay the higher rate in later months.

"Those vouchers ... we don't anticipate those coming in until June, July sometime," Judge Garcia said.

Judge Escobar says every county department budget is up for cuts and the rate increase will affect everyone who works in the county building.

"Many of our folks aren't even earning what they could in other governments," Judge Escobar said. She added she believes nearly every person working in the county courthouse is underpaid.

Commissioner Perez's office provided additional information tonight about courts appointed attorneys fees. Judge Garcia's 384th District Court spent nearly $691,000 in three fiscal years. That included 134 indigent defense lawyers, with 13 of them earning 55 percent of the funds.

The state has not responded to Commissioner Perez's request for a judges audit just yet.

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