By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — Any savings the county might have gained by combining two county positions into a newly created county administrator position may have evaporated as quickly as it materialized. On Thursday, the Knox County commissioners learned that changes made by the Office of the Ohio Public Defender will affect the county coffers.
Attorneys William Kepko and Jim Norris, representing the Knox County Public Defender Commission, told the commissioners about changes in the Ohio Revised Code that call for the salary, facilities, staff support and equipment of county public defenders to be “substantially equivalent” to that provided for county prosecutors. That includes a convenient location for clients and ready access to the court, adequate and accessible research capabilities, and adequate computer, recording, photographic equipment, including a case reporting and management information system.
Kepko said previous agreements have been between the commissioners and the commission. “Now we seem to be constrained with this code provision. … It sort of hamstrings us,” he said. “It constricts your discretion in who you hire and what you pay.”
The commission discovered the changes, which went into effect Dec. 1, 2015, when commission members began discussing who will replace Public Defender Bruce Malek when he retires. Malek's salary is around $88,000; the county prosecutor's salary is $115,703.
“So we are faced with a dilemma going forward, before deciding or recommending who should be the public defender,” said Kepko. “We have quality people to step into the position; the question is, what will they be stepping into? This tells me it will be pretty much the same as a county prosecutor.”
Norris pointed out that since the state pays part of public defense expenses, the county has to comply with the changes.
“We literally need to try and have a budget as we hire, saying yes, we can do this within these parameters, and the state will reimburse,” he said. “The state public defender can deny payment if we don't meet the requirements. It doesn't have to be equal, but it does have to be close. The duties are not quite the same.
“And it's not just who, it's what credentials do they have,” he added, noting that capital murder cases are more frequent in Knox County than previously. “We'd like to hire people who have the qualifications who can do most of these things.”
Kepko said that it is not just salary and support services the state is concerned about, but also the case load. “The case load is too high for the number of lawyers there [at the state level],” he said.
One alternative is to do away with the county public defender. Another alternative is to arrange with the state public defender's office to run the local office. In turn, the state will make arrangements with various attorneys to handle local cases.
“There are other methods, but we have no experience with them,” said Kepko. “We are open to any direction you want to go.”
Commissioner Roger Reed said the commissioners will research their options and get back with the commission. Rochelle Shackle, clerk/administrator, will check with other counties to see how their public defender office is structured.