Monroe County Public Defender’s Office Seeks Pay Parity

The county council postponed complying with new state guidelines asking counties to pay public defenders equal to their counterparts in the prosecutor's office.

County Council

Photo: Jimmy Jenkins

County Council members discuss budget requests at the fifth night of county budget hearings on Wednesday.

In the fifth night of county budget hearings, the Monroe County Council heard from the county court system on Wednesday. Changes in state policy are putting increased pressure on the county budget.

This is County Council President Geoff McKim’s fifth year of budget hearings and he says  the process is usually a struggle. “It’s always a challenge,” McKim says. “There’s never enough revenue to fund everything we’d like to.”

McKim says each year there’s usually a twist that makes things difficult, and this year it’s what he calls an unfunded mandate to increase salaries for the public defender’s office.

Earlier this summer, the Indiana Public Defender Commission changed its guidelines to recommend that chief and deputy public defenders be paid the same as their counterparts in the prosecutor’s office.

But McKim says the council had previously established that the prosecutor’s scope of responsibilities is slighlty larger than that of the public defender.

“The standard we’ve set is that the public defender be compensated at 90% of the prosecutor,” McKim says.

Public defender offices who meet the guidelines set by the state commission can be reimbursed with state money. For Monroe County, state assistance amounts to about a third of budget for the public defender’s office.

Like many of her colleagues, councilwoman Cheryl Munson thinks the state should increase their contribution if they expect counties to pay the increased salaries, which amounts to an additional $125,000 in Monroe county.

“The state does provide some funding for the public defender’s office,” Munsons says, “but not as much as they are mandating. This is something that we should ask the legislature to go back and address because we can’t keep operating this way.”

The council voted against funding a pay raise for the public defender’s office from the general fund, but left the door open for a future allocation of money from a supplemental fund.

However that can’t happen until 2014, which concerns Monroe County Chief Public Defender Michael Hunt.

Hunt says if the county fails to remain in compliance with the state commission, it risks losing state reimbursements.

Council President McKim says they intend to comply, but for right now they’ve got to make cuts somewhere, because county budget requests still exceed projected revenue by more than $800,000.

Jimmy Jenkins

Jimmy Jenkins is a multimedia journalist for WFIU and WTIU news. A native of Terre Haute, he is a masters student at the Indiana University School of Journalism and is proud to be a part of the public broadcasting stations he listened to and watched since he was a child. Follow him on Twitter @newsjunkyjimmy.

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