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County to tap reserve fund to pay for court-appointed attorneys

Friday, July 16, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

The county program that provides legal representation to defendants is short on cash and will receive $600,000 from a reserve fund to help get it through the fiscal year.


Travis County Commissioners approved the transfer on Tuesday to pay for court-appointed attorneys fees. Staff members are expected to return to commissioners later this fiscal year – it ends Sept. 30 – for another $825,000 for fees.


The money goes to attorneys, paid $75 an hour, for defendants in certain civil cases who cannot afford legal representation.


Staff members say a number of factors have contributed to the anticipated $1.4 million overrun. The upshot is that two new county offices created in 2009 were supposed to help reduce court-appointed attorneys fees this year by taking a portion of the caseload, specifically, child welfare cases. The county reduced the budget for court-appointed attorneys fees by $1.3 million in anticipation of that, Leroy Nellis, the county’s budget director, told In Fact Daily Wednesday.


However, he said, the fledgling offices have faced challenges this year.


“They weren’t fully staffed. They had some staff turnover in those offices and were not able to effectively reduce the outside representation line item in civil courts by the amount that we had cut the budget,” Nellis said.


The two new offices are the Office of Parental Representation, which aids indigent parents who have had their children removed or are at risk of having their children removed by the state, and The Office of Child Representation, which provides legal representation and case management for children involved in Child Protective Services.


The county has attorneys on staff in each office.


The overrun didn’t come as a surprise to the Planning and Budget Office, Nellis said. In fact, he said, the county had already earmarked money in the reserve in anticipation of the shortfall.


However, he said that county staff members would keep an eye on the two new offices in the coming year.


“We are going to be reviewing during (fiscal year) ‘11 to see if those offices, in fact, can come up to speed and get closer to our estimates, otherwise they’ll be up for review for the FY ‘12 budget,” Nellis said.

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