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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

Counties could pay more to defend needy criminals

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Taxpayers paid defense attorneys more than $10,000 last year to assist James Jordan before he was sentenced to die for murdering an elderly Toledo couple.

Lucas County picked up about $5,200 of the tab to help defend Jordan - whose bludgeoning of Edward Kowalzck and Gertrude Thompson with a lamp in 1996 was described by a judge as “abominable and atrocious” - and the state paid the rest.

His case was one of hundreds in the county in which taxpayers footed the costs of defending indigent criminals under a long-standing constitutional requirement.

This year, counties could find themselves paying an even greater share of costs of defending people like Jordan if Governor Taft's budget-cutting proposal is approved.

Lucas County has $3 million budgeted to defend indigents, and under the governor's proposal the county's reimbursement from the state would drop from 48 percent of the cost of a case to 42 percent in July, which is the beginning of the next fiscal year. The following fiscal year it would fall to 40 percent.

That translates into $170,000 less of a reimbursement to the county's budget, according to John Zeitler, director of the Lucas County office of budget and management.

“The state isn't living up to their end,” said Harry Barlos, a Lucas County commissioner. “It's the old story where they've saddled local government with new laws and regulations.”

The state budget crunch brought on by a weakening economy and a planned revamping of the school-funding formula threatens to shift more of the burden to defend poor people onto counties, which means commissioners will have to scramble to help cover the shortfall.

Mr. Zeitler said adjustments to the county budget would have to be made if Ohio lawmakers follow the governor's proposal when it considers the state budget in June.

The cuts to local government could be particularly difficult for smaller counties to absorb.

Richard Bertz, a Henry County commissioner, said he thinks the state is trying to balance its budget on the backs of the counties.

“We're very disappointed in the governor and the legislature,” Mr. Bertz said. “They're going back on their word.”

Ida Bostelman, auditor for Henry County, said about $99,000 has been budgeted for indigent defense this year. If the proposed changes were in effect, the county would get about $6,000 less a year from the state. Henry County had to increase its spending for defense attorneys because from December, 1999, to September seven homicides occurred in the county.

The shortfall for Lucas County estimated by Mr. Zeitler isn't a lot of money relative to the county's $132 million general fund budget. But combined with other budget cuts it's significant, he said.

Unlike some areas that may lose funding, it's hard to skimp on paying for attorneys for the poor. Counties can't decide that there are some defendants it just won't cover, John Alexander, the Lucas County commissioners' attorney, said.

“If the state chose to reduce the reimbursement levels to 30 percent, it would not change the fact that Lucas County has to provide indigent defense services,” he said.

Tim Keen, Ohio's assistant budget director, said the state isn't picking on the counties. He said money is tight because the economy is weakening and Governor Taft is committed to spending more on education.

The education-spending push is driven by an Ohio Supreme Court decision that said the way the state's schools are funded is unconstitutional. The court has given the legislature until June 15 to develop a funding plan that isn't so reliant on local real estate taxes.

Finding a solution to that problem and lower than expected tax revenues is putting a squeeze on the budget, Mr. Keen said.

He said 50 percent reimbursement to counties for indigent defense remains the target, but the money isn't available for the upcoming budget.

“It's one of the important programs that state government helps to fund,” Mr. Keen said. “In this case it's a program where people's constitutional rights are at issue. We recognize it's important - unfortunately the resources weren't there.”

Larry Long, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, said he realizes the governor has to address school funding but thinks county governments are taking a disproportionate hit in many areas, including child support and local criminal diversion programs.

Mr. Long said the state used to say it would pick up 50 percent of the costs of hiring attorneys for poor clients, but lawmakers continue to drop the percentage.

“We entered into this covenant that they'd share this responsibility with us,” Mr. Long said. “It seems like oftentimes they get us into this stuff and then they pull the rug out from underneath us.”



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