Legislature weighs savings to legal department

Chautauqua County officials are looking for ways to lower costs of assigned legal counsel, a necessity that has come with a hefty price tag for taxpayers in the last five years.

Legislator George Borrello, R-Irving, addressed the Audit and Control Committee this month and expressed concern over the ballooning cost.

“I think in my time as a legislator, the original budget for assigned counsel was somewhere around $250,000 and every year it increases,” he said. “It’s become an out-of-control expense and it’s probably going to top $1 million this year.”

County Attorney Steve Abdella said there are two reasons for the rise in cost.

“At one point, the state raised the amount paid to attorneys to handle assigned cases,” he said, adding that the hourly rate varies from $60-$75 depending on the situation. “It depends on what’s coming through in a particular year. These assigned counsel cases are where the Public Defender’s Office has a conflict of interest, and it’s happening in both criminal and family court.”

Any time there are multiple defendants in one case, the Public Defender’s Office can only represent one of the defendants, while the rest are assigned council by a judge.

“I would say the volume of cases is probably up, but it’s also a matter of how many conflicted cases come along as well,” Abdella said.

Solutions to the issue are in the works, according to Abdella and Borrello.

“We have a legal obligation to provide services to those who can’t afford counsel, but the question is how do we do it and provide effective council at a savings to the taxpayers?” Borrello said.

Examples include contracting with a legal aid society, or creating an office to handle conflicted assignments.

Another model followed by other counties across the state is swapping cases among counties between public defenders.

“So, instead of being bound by the hourly rate that the state sets, combined with whatever the assigned counsel deems as the appropriate number of hours to that case, we are more in control by swapping with a neighboring county and their hourly wage,” Borrello said. “That’s probably the best, most efficient way and that’s what we’re pursuing with Ned Barone, our public defender.”

In terms of the multiple defendants involved in a case, like Wednesday’s drug ring bust, Abdella said each one will have to have their own representative.

“It depends on what the charges are, but an analysis will be made as to what conflicts there are,” he said.

More information about alternative options will be provided at August legislature meetings in Mayville.