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Wed., Sep. 2
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St. Lawrence County Assigned Counsel needs more money


CANTON — The budget for assigned counsel in St. Lawrence County has run dry because a number of judges made their own assignments of attorneys to represent defendants while the county was reorganizing the way it handled indigent defense.

“I have $85,000 in bills I can’t pay,” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire told legislators Monday at a committee meeting. “If they’ve done the work, we need to pay them.”

The program may need $300,000 to $400,000 more this year than administrators had expected, she said.

Ms. St. Hilaire’s remarks were sparked by a request from Conflict Defender Amy L. Dona to fill an attorney vacancy in her office caused by the recent resignation of Krista Freego, who is opening her own private practice.

Keeping the staff up in the offices of the conflict defender and the public defender costs the county less than if assigned counsel is used, under which private attorneys bill the county for their work.

“It’s twice as expensive to us,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg.

The county decided to reorganize how defendants were assigned after the state Office of Indigent Defense would not allow it to install grant-funded software because a coordinator was not working under an attorney’s direct supervision. During the reorganization, some judges made their own assignments.

“The transition was one problem that’s being rectified,” County Attorney Michael C. Crowe said.

Another trend has been for judges to assign attorneys even when the county has determined the defendant is not eligible for a public defender and instruct the accused to repay the county for the cost of legal representation.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of those,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Ms. Dona’s request to fill a vacancy was approved, but not without notification that change is in the wind.

The county is negotiating a contract with the Civil Service Employees Association that may contain provisions that will affect new hires, according to Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg.

Mr. Lightfoot did not specify issues but suggested holding off on employee appointments until the contract is settled.

“I will be voting against that for that reason,” he said.

Mr. Lightfoot was joined in his opposition to the hire by Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, but others went along with the request.

“It could be a long time before that contract is settled,” Mr. Burns said. “The logic is certainly sound.”

The county has 36 local courts, some of them with multiple judges. The conflict defender’s office could not meet all of its requirements without a fourth attorney, Ms. Dona said.

“There’s just no way to do it,” she said. “My understanding is the numbers are up.”

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