SAN ANGELO, TX – Tom Green County Commissioners made history Tuesday by voting to create a Public Defender's Office replacing the court appointed method of assigning private attorneys to defendants who can't afford one to a Public Defender's Office.
The creation of the Concho Valley Public Defender's Office was made possible by a Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) Improvement Grant award in the amount of $2,276,676.00. The grant will provide funding not only for start up costs to renovate space for the office but also for salaries and benefits.
According to testimony before the court, the reason a Public Defender's Office is needed is because many local attorneys are 'aging out' or reaching retirement age and there are fewer local attorneys for the court appointed system. Another reason is the availability of the TIDC grant. Information presented at previous meetings show a significant cost savings to taxpayers with a Public Defender's Office over the current system. Other benefits listed include lower caseloads for attorneys, more investigators, more training and faster case assignment.
Tom Green County joined with Coke, Concho, Irion, Runnels, Schleicher and Sterling counties in the historic shift away from the assigned counsel model where private attorneys are assigned to indigent defendants to the Public Defender model where full-time, salaried attorneys are appointed, supervised, and paid by an office that includes investigators and support staff. The office is a newly created department in county government.
The new Public Defender's Office will include a projected 23 staff members led by a Chief Defender who is comparable to a District Attorney. The rough budget includes eight felony defense attorneys, four misdemeanor defense attorneys, one juvenile defense attorney, one appellate/research attorney, two investigators, one mental health caseworker, one caseworker, an office manager and three support staff.
The Chief Defender's projected salary is $180,000 while felony defense attorneys are projected at $80,008 and Misdemeanor attorneys will make $75,873. The total projected salary budget is $1,570,702 per year.
Tom Green County and the surrounding counties are currently spending approximately $2.4 million annually for indigent defense.
The total cost of the Public Defender's Office the first year is $2,940,446.62 with the grant paying $2,260,676.30 and the seven counties paying $679,770.32. Total cost savings in the first year are estimated at $1,294,505.56.
According to information from the county, the TIDC grant covers 80% of the cost the first year and 66% of the cost each following year.
The Commissioner's Court approved several items related to starting up the Concho Valley Public Defender's Office Tuesday.
The court appointed Pct. 2 Commissioner Sammy Farmer to the CVPD Oversight Board along with San Angelo Attorney Tip Hargrove and Angelo State University Political Science Professor Dr. Brenda Norton.
The Oversight Board will be made up of a County Commissioner from each of the seven counties and the two public members.
The Commissioner's Court also granted preliminary approval of KFW Architects to design the office space for the Public Defender's Office. The court considered renovating space in the old jail location downtown for the office, but after preliminary estimates came in too high, the court has decided to locate the CVPD office on the first floor of the Keyes Building across the hall from the vehicle registration office.
The Concho Valley Public Defender's Office could begin operations as soon as October 2021.