The Knox County Public Defender Board will submit a leaner budget for 2021.
Board members met Friday for the first time since November, largely due to the COVID-19 shutdown, to begin hashing out details for a 2021 spending plan, and since the county council has warned of shortfalls in tax revenue due to the job losses felt by COVID-19, board members figured they’d get a head start.
Typically, the public defender board operates on just over $866,000 per year, a far cry from the millions it once cost before the program was given an overhaul years ago.
The group signs annual contracts with local attorneys to take on public defender cases; sometimes those are for an annual, lump-sum amount, other times pay is based on an hourly rate.
The state sets limits on the caseloads each counselor can carry; those differ for misdemeanor and felony cases. But if those limits are exceeded, the financial reimbursements the board counts on from the state each year can be cut.
As chief public defender Bryan Jewel began looking at the 2021 budget, he immediately honed in on one attorney contract — one for $50,000 per year — that could likely easily be cut to save money next year.
That attorney, Jewel said, declining to identify him specifically, takes on cases in multiple Indiana counties. All of those cases, Jewel explained, count toward his maximum caseload.
So it would be in Knox County’s best interest to terminate that contract and, if necessary, hire another attorney willing to take on only local cases, thereby giving the board more local bang for its buck, so to speak.
Court activity has been slow due to the COVID-19 shutdown, Jewel said. Things are, however, beginning to ramp up with the county’s first jury trial set for next month.
He’s also received word that nearly 300 cases are waiting to be filed by the Knox County Prosecutor’s Office, many of which will likely require the use of public defenders.
“We’ve had two months with essentially nothing going on,” Jewel told the board, “but that will change.
“Cases are low, but they won’t stay low.”
Should hiring another attorney become necessary to handle the overall public defender caseload, Jewel has already eyed a funding source to close the gap.
There was $38,000 sitting in a “supplemental fund” from 2019 that was supposed to carry over to 2020, he said.
Instead, those funds weren’t encumbered — even though the board voted that they be non-reverting — and are now missing.
So the public defender board, in its planned pitch to the county council during budget hearings scheduled for this fall, will ask for those funds to be returned from wherever they went.
“It’s our money,” Jewel said. “So we have to get it back.”
And board members agreed.
“We can keep our budget steady, static,” said board member and county clerk David Shelton, “and still cover any overages if we get those funds back.”