More work equals more pay - Coeur d'Alene Press: Local News

More work equals more pay

County will now pay contract public defenders by the hour

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Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:00 am

Nearly a year after contract public defenders criticized their compensation, the Kootenai County commissioners approved 15 new contracts on Tuesday that aimed at a fairer system.

The contracts are better structured to track the hours of attorneys taking on indigent, conflict-of-interest cases for the county, said Commissioner Jai Nelson.

Hopefully the county will provide more accurate reimbursement as a result, she said, and possibly reduce the roughly $250,000 spent last year on conflict attorneys.

"Before, we didn't know if they were underworked, overworked, we had nothing to track that," Nelson said. "I think this does a lot fairer job of paying per case."

Frustrations were voiced last December by the then five county-contracted defense attorneys. They complained that the lump monthly payments of $1,625 or $3,250 didn't adequately compensate for workload on many or complex cases.

Nelson agrees it wasn't fair.

"Whether you had zero cases or you had many cases, you were paid the same amount," she said.

Under the new contracts, conflict public defenders will be paid by the hour, with rates assigned according to the case's complexity.

Category A, complex criminal cases, will pay $95 an hour; Category B, conventional criminal cases, will pay $85 an hour; and Category C, child protection and juvenile matters, will pay $75 an hour.

Attorneys will fill out monthly payment applications, listing their active cases and hours worked.

"Now I'll be able to keep a data bank of what this is actually costing us," said Nelson, who has authority over the public defender's office and spearheaded the new contracts.

Nelson hopes to lower costs by gauging which attorneys are most efficient at certain case categories, she said. The county will also prioritize juvenile conflict cases.

"If we can conflict out juvenile cases, we can reduce our costs overall on conflict cases," she said.

Attorney Michael Palmer, who previously resigned from a county contract over compensation concerns, was among the 15 attorneys with signed contracts on Tuesday.

He was pleased that conflict attorneys will be more adequately paid for difficult cases.

"The way the contract was structured before, each was paid $3,250 a month, it didn't matter whether the county assigned you 40 drug trafficking cases that take hundreds and hundreds of hours, or 40 open container cases that take an hour apiece," Palmer said.

He was also grateful that conflict defenders now have the option of turning down county cases, so they can balance with their private practice.

Palmer still hopes the county will bump up the hourly rate eventually, he said.

"There is certainly an advantage to having a contract with a corporation or government entity," he acknowledged. "You know you're going to get paid. You can afford to work for less, when you know that's happening."

Public defender Sean Walsh, also contracted with the county, said the hourly compensation will ensure better representation for indigent clients.

"It discourages attorneys handling these cases from putting minimal time into representing these folks," he said.

He was disappointed that contracts will no longer cover office expenses, but that's balanced by paralegal work now being compensated at up to $35 an hour.

"It's a good compromise," Walsh said.

The contracted attorneys jumped from four to 15 because more defenders showed interest in the new contract, Nelson said.

Judge John Mitchell, who worked with Nelson on the new contracts, assigned each defender to specific case categories.

Walsh applauded Nelson and Mitchell's diligence in meeting with the attorneys and other officials to iron out what was needed.

"They took their time, did their homework," Walsh said. "This is just really good government."

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  • JoeIdaho posted at 7:24 pm on Thu, Oct 4, 2012.

    JoeIdaho Posts: 2841

    Right, estatetracker....instead of giving a small group of attornies a fixed rate, put them on "hourly" instead.

    A license to steal, and you applaud it. Evidently, you're an attorney.

  • estatetracker posted at 8:10 pm on Wed, Oct 3, 2012.

    estatetracker Posts: 385

    Overall, this sound like a good move--a move started and concluded by Ms. Nelson who should be applauded. A flat-fee paid to a small pool of attorneys is bizare business management that can only lead to more law suits against the County that will be lost after way more expensive appeals.

    The next step in the process of saving money for "conflict" cases is to remove the conflict, i.e., for the Board of County Commissioners to act in a manner that keeps the County out of lawsuits instead of elected officials doing what they think is best instead of what the laws require them to do.

  • mister d posted at 6:41 pm on Wed, Oct 3, 2012.

    mister d Posts: 1531

    Seems like this is a bad decision.Why is it always about the money when it comes to attorneys........

  • dasher posted at 6:56 am on Wed, Oct 3, 2012.

    dasher Posts: 205

    The commissioners are going to jumble up everything so badly they are going to lose the committed employees they have. There is nothing fair about making people go to salary, with no restructure of job titles when the work load increases by half, there is nothing fair about Nelson seems to be changing around. She is bad government.

  • JoeIdaho posted at 6:45 am on Wed, Oct 3, 2012.

    JoeIdaho Posts: 2841

    I agree with Herzog, below, and Voxpop.
    This is nothing more than a giveaway to attorneys, by the councilmembers, EVERY ONE of who need to be voted out.

    Costs won't go up when you take an attorney & give them carte blanche, huh? EXPECT that costs for publci defense will quadruple in the next year, easily, and yes, you taxpayers are paying.
    These attornies got $36,000 a year before, regardless if they had cases assigned or not. Now, we give them an hourly rate. How STUPID.
    It's the same thing as gettnig a quote from a contractor, and THEN telling him that it's OK to bill by the hour. Of COURSE you're going to pay twice as much; minimum.
    Just another example of Kootenai County Commissioners, madly out of control.

  • Tim Herzog posted at 6:35 am on Wed, Oct 3, 2012.

    Tim Herzog Posts: 414

    I don't feel I can comment on this particular issue without seeing all the facts regarding this decision.

    But I will agree that many believe the current commissioners need to go. Just ask many county employees what they feel, if they are willing to speak out of fear of losing their jobs.

    Besides that, the current board is Agenda Driven to change the current form of county government and take away the necessary checks and balances currently in place. They are pushing for this change so you no longer can VOTE for the elected officials and can't vote for the proposed commissioner-manager position. This is simply a power play and not streamlining government like they claim. The truth of this is that it will cost the taxpayers more not less!

    Tim Herzog
    WRITE-IN Candidate for District 1, County Commissioner
    The Common Sense Candidate "It's time for a positive change"

  • voxpop posted at 4:39 am on Wed, Oct 3, 2012.

    voxpop Posts: 738

    "... possibly reduce the roughly $250,000 spent last year on conflict attorneys." Who's kidding who. Expect costs to rise substantially. This is exactly like giving a kid a bag of candy and telling them only take what they need. County taxpayers certainly were led down the garden path by these newly elected commissioners. They're every bit as bad - or worse - than the previous group.

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