By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — In January, when the Knox County commissioners adopted the Ohio Public Defender's reimbursement schedule for appointed counsel in indigent cases, it included reduced fees for guardian ad litems (GALs) in juvenile cases. Probate/Juvenile Judge Jennifer Springer, Magistrate Jay Nixon and GAL attorney Christina Reiheld met with the commissioners on Thursday, requesting an increase in GAL fees.
In 2001, the state raised the reimbursement rate for GALs from $45 an hour to $65. Effective in January, the new fee schedule cut that to $50 for out-of-court services and $60 for in-court services. Nixon requested a reimbursement rate of $75 from the commissioners, and at the very least, a restoration of the $65 per hour rate.
Nixon said that being a GAL is a much harder job than representing a client in a criminal matter, which usually involves one or two court appearances and meetings with the client in a controlled setting such as a jail or courthouse. In the course of their investigation, state law requires GALs to visit the child's home, which is often a dangerous, unknown situation, and interview the parents, who are often combative and involved with substance abuse.
“GALS are the eyes and ears of the court,” said Springer. “This is not something where it's a normal client-attorney situation. They are very, very important and also required by law. It's no easy task walking into a situation where you have no idea what you are getting into.”
Reiheld said that GALs sometimes “walk in blind” on home visits. She has encountered situations where drugs are involved and the parents may or may not be high, unsanitary conditions that include lice, filth and the need to shower and wash clothes immediately after the visit, domestic violence issues between the parents and mental health issues. “So you really don't know what you are walking into,” she said.
“It's a situation that can be fraught with peril,” said Springer.
Nixon said that one attorney has withdrawn as a GAL due to the reduced reimbursement and another has declined cases. Other counties have lost GALs and have to hire attorneys at the going market rate of $150 per hour.
In 2016, juvenile GAL fees totaled $47,000. For 2017, the commissioners appropriated $45,000. Through May, fees have already reached $35,000; at the current rate of cases, projections are that GAL fees will top $80,000 this year.
The state will reimburse 50 percent of its maximum fees of $50 and $60 for out-of-court and in-court services, respectively. “We've done all we can to get money out of the state public defender,” said Nixon.
The commissioners have not yet made a decision as to what the reimbursement rate will be.
In other business on Thursday, the commissioners opened bids for the resurfacing of Parrott Street. Kokosing Construction's bid of $491,583.52 was the only one received and is under the county engineer's estimate of $510,186.76.
Small's Sand and Gravel was the only bid received for county road resurfacing. Small's bid is $537,565.61; the engineer's estimate was $644,812.50.
Jeff Pickrell, water/wastewater superintendent, said the rehab of well NO. 3 is complete. The pump and screens were bad. The well previously generated 330 gallons per minute; it now generates 556 GPM.
Work is ongoing on well No. 1. All equipment has been pulled out; the pump is bad and major holes are in the screens. Pickrell will estimate what it will cost to rehab the well; the cost will determine whether the county will cap the well or rehab it.
Pickrell reported that residents will see the rate increase on their next bill. Twenty-two manholes, about half, have been rehabbed in the lines for Apple Valley; that should cut down on infiltration problems. The consumer confidence report required by the EPA will be posted on the county's website by July 1; hard copies will also be available. No reports will be mailed.