County Preps to Inaugurate $2.2 Million Annual Bureaucracy


SAN ANGELO, TX — Commissioner Sammy Farmer, precinct 2, told the Tom Green County Commissioners’ Court this morning that the county is down to three finalists for the attorney who will head the new public defender office.

The chief defender will head the new office of the public defender with an estimated annual budget of $2,204,011.62 and a staff of 23 mostly new hires as well as 13 additional attorneys on staff with salaries in the $80,000 per year range. The office will be located on the first floor of the Judge Edd B. Keyes Building, 13 W. Beauregard Ave., across the street from the county courthouse. The budgeted compensation for the chief defender is $170,000 per year. Creating the new county department has a one-time cost of $736,435, according to a county commissioners presentation.

The defender’s office will be referred to as a regional defender office because the attorneys and staff will service six adjacent counties that are part of the 51st and 119th Judicial Districts, including Coke, Concho, Irion, Runnels, Scheicher, Sterling, as well as Tom Green counties.The defender office will be governed by a nine member board of directors with representatives from the participating counties. Don’t let the district numbers distract you. There are four district courts in the county and the defender office will handle all district court and county court indigent defense requirements in Tom Green County. The district court numbers align with the two prosecutor offices also named for the 51st and 119th districts respectively.

Adding a $2.2 million annual bureaucracy to an already cash-strapped county government was not something County Judge Steve Floyd said he would consider under his tenure. Floyd is retiring at the end of this current term on January 1, 2023. Floyd changed his mind after reviewing the options — continue to be under-subsidized when hiring contract independent attorneys or become the sixth county in Texas to have a public defender office and the first to inaugurate a regional public defender office. State grant money helped sway the commission. Grants were offered by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission run by the State of Texas that make this new bureaucracy affordable. County commissioners believe the series of grants promised over the next five years, plus grants for the initial setup, will sustain the public defender office perpetually. In June, the TIDC awarded Tom Green County $2.3 million to launch what will be known at the Concho Valley Regional Defender Office (CVRDO).…

While the county budget will benefit in the near term with the state grant money, some have expressed concern about the new bureaucracy. It will destroy small business, one prominent attorney told us. Many independent entrepreneurial law firms in San Angelo benefit by accepting public defense cases. This will wipe out county revenue to them. A public defender office is a radical change in how criminal defense will be conducted from now on, the attorney said. But before the commissioners embarked upon this change, they received input from the local bar and most local attorneys seemed agreeable.

What also is pushing the county away from the time-honored traditional way of appointing contract attorneys to criminal defense cases is that the way defendants are classified as “indigent” has changed radically over the past 25 years. Back in 1996, for example, few defendants qualified for a free attorney. As the income level classified as “poverty” as determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services increased, so too did the number of defendants eligible for indigent defense. A family of three, for example, is considered living in poverty if the annual household income is $21,960 or less. The Tom Green County guidelines for judges to appoint a free defense attorney are that the defendant’s income be within 125 percent of the HHS poverty line. In the case of a defendant in a three-person household, he or she is eligible for a free defense counsel if earning less than $27,450 annually.

Even if the defendant does not qualify because of having too high of an income, county and district judges have the discretion to appoint a free defense counsel if by, "taking into account the nature of the criminal charges, the anticipated complexity of the defense, the estimated cost of obtaining competent private legal representation for the matter charged, and the amount needed for the support of the defendant and the defendant’s dependents,” according to the county Indigent Defense Plan.…

Because of this, the demand for indigent criminal defense appointments in San Angelo’s local courts has exploded.

Today, 27 percent of misdemeanors, 79 percent of felonies, 100 percent of juvenile, and 100 percent and appeals cases have a county-paid defense counsel just in Tom Green County. Throughout the Concho County, there are over 2,000 criminal defendants with court-appointed attorneys.

Commissioners hope that a dedicated staff of criminal defense attorneys will reduce the load on the jail. Sheriff Nick Hanna, under whom responsibility for managing the Tom Green County Detention Center rests, said that the court backlog is expensive for the county. The longer it takes for a criminal case to work its way through the court systems, the more days many defendants stay in jail.

“We have some inmates who have been in jail for over 1,000 days. Stephen and Gary Jennings have both been incarcerated 1521 days,” Hanna said. The two are among the three murder defendants in the 2017 Duckworth Road murder who have been incarcerated since the summer of 2017.

A TIDC study presented to the county commissioners in March claimed that in Kaufman County, a public defender reduced jail days 113 per felony. What is more, the TIDC claimed that there was a 22 percent reduction of rearrests in mental health cases in Travis County after that county opened a public defender office.

Reducing the inmate population of the county detention center eliminates the need to contract more beds in neighboring counties for overflow. Instead, opening more beds up in our jail allows Tom Green County to earn money with its jail at a rate of about $52 per inmate per night by intaking overflow from neighboring counties. Our jail currently has no incoming overflow opportunities, even though it is new and larger.

The county budget will benefit from the grant money. Two TIDC improvement grants will pay for the CVRDO’s physical infrastructure and 80 percent of the variable costs like salaries the first year. Thereafter for until at least the fifth year, the grant will pay for 66 percent of the variable costs. For FY 2022, the County Judge’s budget estimates $683,771 will be spent by Tom Green County for the CVRDO, neighboring participating counties will also contribute to pay for the cost. In subsequent years, this number will grow as programmed grant receipts decrease. However, the grants make the CVRDO appear to be a gigantic windfall for the county budget because in the current year, FY 2021, over $2.5 million was budgeted for indigent criminal defense.

County court watchers warn not to cheer too loudly, however. TIDC grants are dependent upon the Texas Legislature funding them. The legislature meets every two years and the next regular session starts in January 2023. But for now, whoever the finalist is for the position of chief of the CVRDO has a job for at least until FY 2024… Or beyond. Whoever heard of a government body eliminating a part of its bureaucracy and how large a county tax increase will be needed to pay for the CVRDO without a State subsidy?

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I'm curious to know if John Young applied. I'm sure he'd like to be close to that kind of money. ;)

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