PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Jan. 20, 2009) — After being hit with a potential bill of nearly $30,000 to help the 25th Judicial Circuit retain two juvenile defense lawyers, Pulaski County Commissioners received what may be good news. County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer said Tuesday morning that she received a call from the presiding commissioner of Texas County indicating that his county may be willing to appeal that assessment.
The money would be used to put two defense lawyers on retainer who would represent families in the juvenile division of the circuit court. The circuit judges believe failing to provide free defense counsel for families in juvenile court will create serious problems and have added an assessment to each of the four counties in the 25th Judicial Circuit that none of the counties had expected. The county paid $101,191 in juvenile court assessments for 2008 but could have been billed up to $126,612 in budgeted assessments for juvenile court expenses. The 2009 requested figure will be $136,357 due to the new bill, which made Pulaski County’s financial problems even more difficult.
Until most other budget items, the county commission can’t just say “no” to the judges, said Pulaski Couty Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall.
Ransdall, a former state representative, and financial decisions made by the judges are apportioned to all affected counties based on population. That isn’t always fair to Pulaski County, whose assessment is 36 percent of the circuit because of Fort Leonard Wood’s population, Ransdall said.
“We can’t arbitrarily cut the circuit’s budget. If we don’t like the budget, we can appeal it to a panel,” Ransdall said. “(Financial assessments are) all based on population, not on case load. Some of those counties up north have far less population than our circuit … I had a bill one time to change all that, and boy, did it make me unpopular.”
Commissioner Bill Farnham asked what realistically could be done to prevent Pulaski County from being billed the extra money.
“It’s an awful big bump, that’s what I’m getting to, when we’re asking other people to cut back tremendously,” Farnham said.
Ransdall said the money probably will have to be paid by somebody, even if it’s not Pulaski County.
“I don’t see any real hope going to the review board unless maybe somebody says they’ll fund it out of the state court administrator’s fund,” Ransdall said.
Commissioners spent much of their time Tuesday morning reviewing various items in parts of the county’s law enforcement budget that don’t directly involve the sheriff’s department. Even small budgets such as those of County Coroner Mike Hartness received scrutiny when he asked for an increase from $21,000 to $25,000 to pay for autopsies.
Farnham asked why Hartness wanted the higher amounts, noting that the coroner’s office only spent $19,150 for autopsies in 2008.
“Maybe we need to bring him down and talk to him; we’ve never incurred these kind of fees before,” Farnham said.
“I think we need to cut it back to last year’s level of $21,000,” Ransdall said. “If the prices of autopsies have not gone up, and he didn’t say they had, hopefully he won’t have to have too many.”
Other offices didn’t fare much better. A request last week by members of the Pulaski County Extension Center board to give their secretary a $1 hourly raise and increase the budget about 20 percent to $29,587 for 2009 was rejected.
A few departments that generate funds for Pulaski County rather than drawing money out of general revenue were given permission to make pay adjustments for employees, but most were told they’ll have to keep with a countywide 25-cent hourly pay increase. Those included employees in the public administrator’s office and the county assessor’s office, as well as an employee position in the office of Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Hooper who will become full-time rather than part-time with a $10,000 annual pay increase since Hooper said making that employee full time will generate more money and cut jail costs by increasing the efficiency of prosecution.
“Anything she can do to push people through the system more quickly will help us a lot,” Ransdall said.
Ransdall also thanked Circuit Clerk Rachelle Beasley, whose budget for jury trials will increase to $10,000 per year, for using one of a court-related discretionary funds to pay jury expenses until that fund was exhausted.
Other pay increases probably aren’t realistic, commissioners said.
“Times are tough and it’s good that people still have a job,” Farnham said.
“I know times are tight and I think people ought to all stay about the same. In today’s environment, a quarter raise is not a bad thing,” said Commissioner Ricky Zweerink.