Longtime public defender David Nowak gets it, really. When times get rough, granting pay raises is tough.
So Nowak understands why Bartholomew County public defenders have not received raises since 2007. It has been a matter of dollars and cents — or lack thereof.
But the County Council came to a consensus Tuesday to change that. Increases have been added to the county’s preliminary budget that would increase pay for each local public defender by 2.2 percent, to $41,734 per year.
That’s a deal the nine full-time and one part-time Bartholomew County public defenders hope sticks on Oct. 9, when the county council is expected to finalize its 2013 budget.
“The county is getting a bargain with what they’re paying now for the representation,” first-year public defender Jim Shoaf said. “Most of the (private) attorneys in town are earning $200 an hour-plus. It’s really hard to justify.”
When defendants cannot afford an attorney, they can ask the court to appoint a public defender to take their case with payment coming from taxpayer funds. The pay rate for Bartholomew County public defenders has stayed the same since 2008, when they received a 1 percent raise that increased their annual salary to $40,821. The pay rate hasn’t changed since.
With the county budget in the process of being finalized, the public defenders have an ally in Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann, a former public defender.
“It’s not that I want to help them out because I feel akin to them,” said Heimann, who worked as a public defender for the Bartholomew Circuit Court in 1982. “It’s that they’re way underpaid.
“I mean, 1982 was 30 years ago, and the work has increased significantly. Costs have increased significantly.”
Part of the point Heimann makes is public defenders spend about half of their income on overhead: paying support staff, rent and utilities, etc. Once those costs get factored into the equation, he said, they’re netting about $20,000 a year from the county.
Nowak, who has worked as a Bartholomew County public defender since 1994, fears stagnant salaries will diminish the quality of public representation, which would lead to more appeals, retrials and reversals. In other words, he worries taxpayers would pay more in the long run if public defenders aren’t paid better now.
“No doubt about it,” he said.
As a half-time public defender, Nowak, 58, dedicates about 25 to 30 percent of his time to work on low-income defendants in the Bartholomew Circuit Court. He serves as legal
representation in felony cases.
Shoaf handles less serious cases: misdemeanors and low-level felonies. He’s dealt with an average of nine a month from Bartholomew Superior Court 1.
Shoaf and colleagues would make more money if they invested their time and energy in private cases, which begs the obvious question:
“Why we do it?” Shoaf said. “That’s a good question. I ask myself that every day.”
Stacked in a downtown office near Washington and Fourth streets, longtime local attorney Allen Whitted’s pile of paperwork is tall. His son, Alex, a recent Indiana University Indianapolis School of Law graduate, watches the front desk and does initial interviews with potential clients.
Alan Whitted, 57, who has served as both a Bartholomew County deputy prosecutor and deputy city attorney in Columbus, mainly stepped into a public defender role to help his son gain valuable experience in the profession.
“You get a lot of trials and you get a lot of opportunities for jury trials,” Alan Whitted said. “It’s a good way to get a quick, thorough immersion to the legal process.”
Each month, about 20 cases from Superior Court 2 roll Whitted’s way. As a ballpark estimate, he said he spends about 25 percent of his work on public defender cases.
Not only does Whitted get satisfaction from helping his son, but he also enjoys helping his clients.
“Most of the people I’m dealing have significant substance-abuse problems,” Whitted said. “You’re trying to help them find their way to become productive citizens.”
The clients themselves understand the benefit. “Most of them are appreciative,” he said.
Judges determine how much, if any, money defendants must pay to the courts. If the court determines that the defendant can pay part of the costs, he or she pays part. Otherwise, taxpayers foot the entire bill.
Although the raises are on the table, it’s premature to say they’re absolutely going to occur for next year.
“I think we’re about where we need to be, but (we) just need to fine-tune (the budget),” Bartholomew County Council President Bill Lentz said. “There’s seven of us. I can’t promise (public defenders) are going to get a raise, but we’re not done talking about (that).”
The county council votes on the preliminary budget Tuesday.
County Council member Ryan Lauer said he appreciates the services public defenders provide, but he’s not quick to give raises to contract employees.
“Do they deserve a raise?” Lauer said. “In these tough times ... many people deserve raises, but fiscal constraints and the need to keep our budget as tight as possible, I believe, outweighs the decision to give raises for contract employees.”
Nowak disagrees. Not only would a raise improve the quality of public defenders, he said, it would help ensure the current system stays intact.
He contends that the alternative, creating a public defender’s office, would cost taxpayers more than the current system.
“Everyone sacrificed to try and keep taxes low,” he said. “And certainly the county’s income was diminished because of the recession, but it’s turning around.”
Public defenders in
Public defender cases
so far this year
Estimated budget for
Bartholomew County public defenders’ salaries, 2001-2012:
Bartholomew County public defenders are being paid $40,821 in 2012. The County Council is considering raises that would bump their pay to about $41,734.
Here’s a look at what other counties with similar structures are paying their public defenders per year:
Hamilton County (case-load dependent)