LIMA — The Allen County commissioners on Thursday embraced the concept of a full-time public defenders office, but tempered that support by acknowledging the financial realities that come attached to such a proposal.
Steve Chamberlain, who currently oversees the public defender office that operates out of Lima Municipal Court, made a presentation to the commissioners calling for the establishment for a full-time staff of attorneys who would represent indigent clients in municipal, common pleas and juvenile courtrooms in Allen County.
Based on staffing recommendations provided by the state Public Defenders Office, Chamberlain’s proposal included a request for 10 full-time attorneys and three office staffers, at an estimated annual cost of nearly $800,000. Coupled with office expenses and overhead, the attorney estimated the annual cost to operate the office at more than $1.2 million.
At the current 50% state reimbursement rate for public defender operations, that figure would be reduced to $627,ooo annually. Under reimbursement numbers contained in the state’s two year budget — 70% in 2020 and 90% in 2021 — the county’s share of the annual cost to operate the public defenders office during that budget period would fall to $376,00 and $125,000, respectively.
Chamberlain said the need for a full-time public defenders office is real as fewer and fewer local defense attorneys are willing to accept cases involving indigent clients. He said a full-time office would offer accountability to clients and to the commissioners.
“With the current system (of court-appointed attorneys), you get what you get,” Chamberlain said. “The number of people who will even take these cases has dwindled. We’ve been lucky in the past to have a lot of guys (attorneys) step up and take these cases, but we’re a dying breed.”
Chamberlain said he is excited about the prospect of a full-time public defenders office.
“I think we can do it and make it work,” the veteran attorney said. “It should make things more efficient and it would provide real accountability. I hope you guys can make it happen.”
Commissioner Jay Begg voiced support for the concept, but stopped short of endorsing the move due to uncertainty in future funding available from the Ohio legislature.
“The bottom line is that these will be Allen County employees. We’ve got to figure out how we can afford to do this,” Begg said. “We have to look long term. We’re not going to do this for two years and then quit.”
Commissioner Corey Noonan asked Chamberlain to pare down his wish list. “Can we get something lower (in terms of annual costs) and work toward the middle?” Noonan asked. “Give it some thought and we’ll get back together for some more dialog.”