The fee increase takes effect July 1 and is expected to cost the county over $29,000 per month
CLARK COUNTY — Attorneys who work under contract with Clark County on behalf of defendants who can’t afford a lawyer should be getting an increase in pay. On Tuesday, the County Council unanimously approved an amendment to the Spring supplemental budget providing a 10 percent pay increase for indigent defense attorneys.
“This is a recognition of the fact that for too many years, certainly since I’ve been on the council, the council has paid lip service to the importance of indigent defense without backing up those words with taking the action that’s been in our authority,” said Councilor John Blom who introduced the amendment.
Under Washington State Law, counties are required to provide legal representation for people who can’t afford an attorney. While some counties use in-house public defenders, Clark County contracts with private attorneys who receive a flat fee for their work based on the type of crime their clients are accused of. It has been nearly a decade since those fees were increased.
“We are not attracting new attorneys,” said Shon Bogar, a local defense attorney at Tuesday’s County Council meeting. “We are not attracting people who want to get in and fight the fights that need to get fought.”
Defense attorneys have been pushing for several years to get a fee increase approved. They last made an appeal three weeks ago, which was rejected at the time with a promise that the council would look into a way to possibly free up enough money in the Spring supplemental budget.
“Clark County has had a history of sort of kicking the can down the road a little bit,” said Councilor Julie Olson. “We had to catch up on park impact fees last year because we hadn’t raised them for, like, 8-9 years. And when we don’t do things for a period of time then we have to make it right later, and it makes that lift really difficult. It makes it difficult financially. Frankly, it makes it difficult politically. And so for us not to take action just lays that responsibility on someone else in the future.”
The 10 percent increase, which takes effect July 1, is expected to cost $29,838 per month, or $179,275 for the remainder of this budget year. County Manager Shawn Henessee said the general fund balance should be able to absorb the cost of the raise.
“I just want to emphasize … that that doesn’t mean we have $2.7 million,” Henessee told the council. “But we do have the ability to be able to cover that in our fund balance.”
Henessee said next year the fee increase will add up to much more, since it will be for a full year, but several of the council members said they believe this is a long overdue adjustment.
“This is also part of a larger, longer-term plan to actually get closer to whole for the defense attorneys,” said Councilor Temple Lentz. “We recognize that there is actually a gap of about 19 percent to make up, and so we’re talking about how to get there as well.”
“There’s no possible resemblance to equality under the law when we’re looking at those kinds of numbers,” added Blom.
Councilor Gary Medvigy said he would have preferred a slower phase-in of raises, though he added he understands that something clearly needs to be done.
“I just wish that we hadn’t ignored the situation for so many years that we have to now jump a salary ten percent in one go,” Medvigy said, adding that he hopes the council continues to talk about changes to the public defender system to make it more fair and sustainable. “I’m hoping that we do the hard work in either looking at the public defender model, or a hybrid.”
The council has talked frequently in recent years about switching the way they provide indigent defense, but so far nothing has gained traction.
“I very strongly feel that a budget is a values statement, and our values are not currently in line with the budget,” said Lentz. “We need to be providing for the defense for the most vulnerable in our community. We need to be doing it constitutionally, and we also need to be doing it ethically. And this gets us closer to compensating the people who provide that defense adequately.”
Bogar said the lack of a pay increase from the county since he began practicing law nearly seven years ago made him strongly doubt whether he had picked the right career path.
“Defense attorneys are not trained, we’re born. We might get better, but there’s this thing inside us that wants — needs — to stand up and fight against government. We provide a check on the power of the police state,” said Bogar. “Six figures in student loan debt, my wife has 80 grand in student loan debt. So between the two of us is this a viable career path for future defense attorneys? I respectfully submit that it’s not.”
Edward Dunkerly has been practicing law since 1978 and actually stopped taking public defender cases from the county for a period in the 90s over a lack of pay increases. He told the council it’s his view that there’s a prejudice against indigent defense attorneys.
“I see it as symptomatic of our society which seems to be about consumerism and money,” said Dunkerly. “And if you don’t have money to defend yourself then you’re going to get some public defenders who quite often are underfunded and definitely underpaid for some of the talent that exists in the criminal defense bar.”
Bogar said the 10-percent raise represents an encouraging starting point for attorneys like himself, but that more needs to be done soon.
Council Chair Eileen Quiring, known as a strong fiscal conservative, said she wholeheartedly supported the amendment brought by Blom, despite the cost.
“The public doesn’t know too much and maybe doesn’t care too much, of course, until they need a public defender,” Quiring concluded before the council unanimously voted to accept the supplemental budget amendment.
Other budget items
The Spring supplemental budget included a total of 76 budget requests from county departments. Those related to maintaining service levels, infrastructure upkeep, revenue forecast updates, budget interventions, and items with no impact on the fund balance such as grants and technical adjustments.
Henessee told the council recent deep dives through county department budgets and operations realized an additional $834,665 in General Fund savings.
“It’s important that we be good stewards and be as efficient as we can with county funds,” said Henessee.
The net impact of the updated budget to all county funds is more than $3.7 million for 2019 and $13.2 million for 2020. The total 2019 adopted county budget is $520 million. The General Fund accounts for 33 percent or almost $170 million. The Road Fund has the second largest budget at $89.2 million.For more information on the county budget, go to https://www.clark.wa.gov/budget/2019-budget