There is currently a move afoot in the Montana Legislature to siphon off money allocated to counties to backfill a shortfall in the Office of the State Public Defender program. Through the main appropriations bill and a companion Senate bill, this attempt to “true up” expenses incurred by the Office of the State Public Defender is, in fact, a cost shift to local property taxpayers.

The inaccurate and misleading assertion is that local governments are at fault because local ordinances have increased the workloads of public defenders. This is blatantly false. Public defenders are only employed when the accused face charges that could land them in jail. The types of local ordinances the legislators reference result in nominal fines if convicted, not jail time, or are being prosecuted simultaneously with more serious jailable offenses.

Public defenders are notoriously overworked, with staggering caseloads and clients who rely on those lawyers to provide criminal defense throughout legal proceedings that are increasingly protracted. The other side of this equation is the office of the county attorney, tasked with prosecuting those cases. Representing the public, the county attorney staff are equally, if not more, overworked. While the OPD’s budget has mushroomed, the county attorney’s prosecutor staff continues to hold the line on their expenditures. County attorney staff is provided by the county general fund, whose revenues are effectively capped.

The Legislature is responsible for adequately funding OPD, treatment and programming to meet the needs of Montana citizens. The responsibility should not be shifted to local governments that do not have the resources nor the means to meet these growing demands on the system.

Lewis and Clark County is required to prepare a comprehensive annual budget for money spent by the county. With limited resources, county leadership holds our departments accountable to stay within appropriation limits and manage the public’s resources effectively and efficiently. To make budgets even tighter, state law mandates “Local government officials may not make a disbursement, or expenditure, or incur an obligation in excess of the total appropriations for a fund.” This legislation essentially diverts money to the state that would otherwise pay for county capital projects for repair and replacement of existing facilities, equipment and infrastructure.

If passed, the Legislature’s proposed diversion of funds will put counties in an untenable position that will, in all likelihood, result in significantly higher taxes to local taxpayers.

Jim McCormick is chair, Susan Good Geise is vice-chair, and Andy Hunthausen is a commissioner on the Lewis and Clark County Commission. 

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