The cost for McLennan County to provide public defenders has been on the rise for years. At the same time, state money for the indigent defense program has been on the decline, pinching the county budget.
McLennan County commissioners are pushing state legislators to take a more equitable share of costs under the Texas Fair Defense Act, one of five state legislative priorities the county is pushing ahead of the 86th regular legislative session that will start in January.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said commissioners will do more than just pass resolutions on to state representatives. They plan to continue to push the issues in hopes of seeing legislation that will reduce burdens on local taxpayers, he said.
“In this day and time, in my opinion, you can no longer be a reactive county,” Perry said. “You have to be proactive. We’re trying to be involved now.”
If the county does not work to shape policy, it will have to settle for what it gets, he said.
County Judge Scott Felton said it is important to stay involved. Felton said commissioners as a group need to push back and say, “Let’s be realistic about state funding.”
“I’m as active as I can be and intend to be just as much so this next session, not only on matters that affect county government but that affect our community both on a state and national level,” Felton said.
In addition to indigent defense costs, commissioners passed resolutions last week asking for more state school funding, asking the state to reimburse counties for housing state prisoners, opposing revenue caps for local property taxes and opposing all unfunded state mandates.
Indigent defenses expenses are a good example of an unfunded mandate forced on counties, Perry said.
The state once covered the costs of providing legal representation for people accused of crimes who cannon afford adequate defense, as required by the U.S. Constitution. But the state has been reducing its contribution for years.
The county has almost $4.7 million budgeted for indigent defense this year, up from $4.1 million in 2014.
That includes $270,000 in state money this year, down from $532,000 in 2014.
The Texas Fair Defense Act of 2001 does not include a way to pay for its requirements, shifting the expenses to county taxpayers, the county’s resolution states. Statewide spending on indigent defense in 2016 was more than 2.7 times as much as it was when the act passed, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
The state spent $247.4 million in 2016, up from $91.4 million in 2001.
An ever-growing population contributes to the increasing costs, Perry said.
But anecdotally, inefficient handling of cases also plays a part in increasing costs, Waco attorney Robert Callahan said.
“It used to be that it was fairly easy to work on a felony case efficiently and to have a fairly quick resolution to the case, therefore, you could bill the county a flat fee on felony cases,” Callahan said. “But now, it’s so hard to get legitimate plea offers on cases. A lot of people are sitting in jail longer waiting to go to trial.
“If I spend more time trying to get a reasonable outcome on a case then I’m going to shift from a flat fee to billing by the hour.”
Billy Rodriguez, who is charged with continuous sexual abuse of a young child, has been in the McLennan County Jail for 968 days.
In 54th State District Court on Friday morning, Rodriguez said he is frustrated by his inability to get to trial and asked Judge Matt Johnson to replace his court-appointed attorney with someone new.
Rodriguez’s attorney told Johnson he has been involved in trials in recent weeks, including one this week and another that took four weeks to try because it was delayed when he got the flu, then delayed again when a juror got the flu.
Johnson said Twin Peaks biker cases have also inundated the felony court dockets and caused delays for many cases.
The judge told Rodriguez his attorney is highly competent, and that appointing another attorney would only cause more delays as the new attorney would need time to get up to speed on the case.
Johnson denied the motion for a new attorney and said he understands Rodriguez’s frustration, because he is also frustrated with the length of time it takes to bring someone to trial in this county.
More than 100 inmates sit in the county jail awaiting transfer to a state penitentiary on any given day, according to a recent review by commissioners, Perry said. The state does not compensate counties for housing state inmates awaiting transfer.
Once an inmate is “paper ready” for transfer, the state has 45 days to pick them up, but it often misses its deadline, Perry said.
“We constantly have inmates that sit in jail well past the 45 days,” he said. “That’s on our dime.”
It costs the county a minimum of $52 a day to house an inmate.
Commissioners are calling for the state to fully reimburse counties for the cost of feeding, housing, and caring for these prisoners while in the county’s custody.
Last year, multiple cities joined the county in opposing legislation they said would limit local control of property tax rates. County commissioners are resuming that message.
Residents can petition for a tax-rate referendum if a city or county raises its tax rate by 8 percent or more. The last bill, ultimately shot down, would have triggered a referendum automatically for any increase of 4 percent or more.
“If they put that lid on it and yet not control mandates then we could be in a position that we could have to cut back some of the services provided to the community, including public safety,” Felton said.
Revenue caps would diminish local decisions and limit the ability to provide essential services to address the needs and emergencies, according to the commissioners’ resolution.
Felton said school funding affects everyone on the local level.
“We need to rethink how school funding is done,” Felton said. “If the state increased their portion of it, it would be less on the local people to pick it up.”
The state’s share of public education funding has been significantly reduced in the past eight years, shifting the burden to local property tax payers, county officials said. The state should at least boost its school spending to become an equal partner, officials said.
Staff writer Tommy Witherspoon contributed to this report.