Will county sue state?

HUDSON–At the county Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee meeting May 19 county Public Defender Robert Linville asked for a resolution saying the county is willing to sue the state for the money required to operate the Public Defender’s Office.

The committee agreed to send the proposal to the full Board of Supervisors, which meets June 8.

This year, to provide quality defense for indigent clients, the state budget is allocating over $2 million each to five counties. But Mr. Linville said, “Columbia County gets nothing.” So to pay for lawyers who represent people who cannot afford a private attorney, the county must pay.

“I don’t like Columbia County being left out,” Mr. Linville said.

In April, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution asking the state to pay for legal defense services for indigent defendants in all its counties. Thirteen other counties that were not designated to receive funds for public defenders have made similar requests.

Now Mr. Linville is proposing to “increase the pressure” and “move the ball forward” by announcing a willingness to participate in a lawsuit. “I think it’s an important thing to fight for,” he said.

In a phone interview this week, Mr. Linville said that the funding for just five counties was the outgrowth of a class action suit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and settled in 2014. In that case, the parties agreed that legal services for indigent defendants were inadequate and that the state had a responsibility to improve the situation. But Mr. Linville and other public defenders were stunned by the state budget this year, which singled out only Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties for $2 million with no additional funding for all the rest.

Mr. Linville said that if his office received $2 million from the state budget it would not need any money from the county budget and would instead be “self-funding.” In addition to Mr. Linville and other lawyers, the defenders office has an investigator and a case manager.

The Columbia County Public Defender’s Office has a total annual budget this year of $1.1 million. State grants account for $450,000 of that, but some of those funds are earmarked for special projects, including a program that helps veterans in the justice system.

Mr. Linville said more than 50 counties statewide did not receive funding under the settlement agreement and that the possibility of a suit might encourage the state to make funds available for the legal defense of indigent defendants statewide.

The next Human Services Committee meeting is Wednesday, June 15. The next Public Safety Committee meeting is Thursday, June 16. Both are 5 p.m. at 401 State Street.

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