Scotts Bluff County Commissioners heard concerns from court officials about underpaying contract attorneys and a shortage of public defenders amid budget hearings Monday.
At this year’s budget workshops, which are continuing through the month of August, commissioners are meeting with heads of county departments to hear about concerns, items on the budget and goals for the next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.
Both the clerk magistrate for the County Court and the elected Clerk of the District Court said some of the courts’ biggest costs are paying for the appointment of private attorneys to represent impoverished defendants who cannot afford legal counsel.
Last year, the County Courts spent 86% of its budget — $329,247 on attorneys fees, and the year before that, fees were 91% of the budget at $328,888. For the past three years, the costs have been rising.
County Court Clerk Magistrate Diane Lana said she only spent $255,000 this year on fees, citing COVID-19 as pushing off many first appearances, meaning people did not need to secure attorneys, as part of the reason. She told commissioners she estimates the costs will be higher this year.
Lana said an unclear prediction of fees is only part of the problem.
“The public defender’s office is short-handed,” she said. “I think that’s what’s going to cause an increase in using court-appointed attorneys, because right now (public defenders) are not accepting misdemeanor cases and they are not taking any juvenile court case appointments.
“We’re having to appoint private attorneys.”
Lana said the hourly rate for those private attorneys was last reviewed by the county commissioners in 2005. She asked Audrey Elliott, an associate at Kovarik, Ellison & Mathis, P.C., to talk about challenges for the contracting lawyers.
Elliott told commissioners there’s only three private practice attorneys who are really willing to work criminal justice cases and an additional three attorneys to represent in juvenile cases.
“For the population that we have, we pay one of the lowest rates in all the counties north and south,” Elliott said. “I’m talking Sioux, Dawes, Box Butte, Grant, even up to Cherry County, they all pay $100 per hour for court-appointed work.”
Scotts Bluff pays $75 in County, and lower in District Court at $70 an hour. That’s half of what the same attorneys are charging at the private rate.
She said Garden, Deuel and Kimball counties pay $85 an hour for representation in district court and $70 in county courts.
“That’s always confused us attorneys, when you’re in district court, you’re dealing with felonies, prison sentences,” Elliot said, adding that it is extensive work, where the attorneys can take a loss because of hours worked, without benefits, paying their own retirement and using personal office equipment.
Commissioner Chairman Ken Meyer said he appreciated the matter being brought before the board and it would have to be moved to another agenda for any action.
“That’s something we can do, prior to finalizing budgets too,” he said.
During the regular meeting, commissioners unanimously approved three requests: a contract with the Scotts Bluff Detention Center and Lancaster County Youth Services to hold juveniles if needed; approving a new agreement for the Mutual Aid Association; and approving the five-week closure of a portion of Highway 71 for the possible upcoming filming of a TV show.
Sheriff Mark Overman, who also oversees the detention center said the institution in Lincoln requested to “redo an old contract” with the institution but said he did not anticipate sending juveniles to Lancaster County very often, if ever.
“(Lancaster County) rarely holds anyone for us, but there are so few places to hold juveniles that I think we need to sign the contract to have them on board as a back-up,” he said.
Overman said the usual procedure is to transfer them to a facility in Casper, in Natrona County, Wyoming, he said the other option is a facility in Madison, Nebraska.
Overman said the fee to send juveniles to Lincoln would be $300 per day. He said sending them to Casper only costs $180 per day.
Finally, commissioners voted to close a three-mile stretch of Highway 71 starting at Lockwood Road and continuing west to County Road S starting Monday, Aug. 10 continuing through Saturday, Sept. 12.
Commissioners and City of Scottsbluff Economic Development Director Starr Lehl declined to comment further, saying this was “the first step to getting the resolution.”
Commissioner Charlie Knapper said the economic impact could be in the millions and that production staff’s purchase of hotels, food and other goods would stimulate the economy hurt by COVID-19.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for Scotts Bluff County economically,” Knapper said. “We’re expecting between $2 to $10 million dollars, but the opportunity can be lost if the name of the show was to be leaked.”
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