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Public defender gets McDuffie's money, other counties questionable

McDuffie County's part is paid, but a serious message was sent to the standards council that governs the newly-formed office of the public defender.

The new budget for the Toombs Judicial Circuit's Public Defender was met with more resistance than Chip Wallace expected. Mr. Wallace, the public defender, cut his budget nearly in half for the upcoming year, and several counties in the circuit are still balking at providing their share.

The opposition stems from the standards council's ruling that additional personnel would have to be brought in and paid for by the counties within the circuit. According to McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton, the original legislation called for the state to pick up the tab on future employees.

"The way I understood it, the state's vision is that they would handle personnel and we would handle the office space and supplies and things like that," he said. "Now the state is asking us to pay for additional personnel in that office.

"We don't want to open the door and make it easy when they say 'You have to have additional personnel.' If we do that then they're going to feel like they can come to us and ask that question very frequently."

Commissioners voted to approve paying McDuffie County's $26,000 share -- 41.4 percent of the public defender's budget based on population -- during their Nov. 3 meeting. The McDuffie-approved budget included the new position of investigator mandated by the state.

But other commission chairmen within the circuit have expressed extreme displeasure with the state's mandate. Several have threatened not to pay their county's share, which Mr. Newton said could bring a lawsuit.

Mr. Newton stressed that his concern was being responsible for the additional personnel, not the budget itself.

"If you look at it from dollars and cents, it's a very good budget," he said. "I think Chip's done a good job in putting that together. It's a lot less money than we spent last year. Our fear is that if we don't hold the line, somewhere in the very near future it's going to be a lot more than we spent last year."

A new payment plan, if approved by the county commissions, would shift responsibility of administering the budget to the Administrative Office of the Courts instead of the host county. According to Patti James, the public defender's office administrator, McDuffie would stay out of the fray if that happened.

"If they do adopt the AOC contract, then all the bills are going to be paid through the Administrative office of the Courts," she said. "If they don't pay their portion of the bills, they have to answer to the AOC about that."



Web posted on Thursday, November 11, 2004


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