Allen County buys building for public defenders

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LIMA — Allen County Commissioners took the first steps needed to set up a full-time public defender’s office by approving the purchase of the building at 417 N. West St. during their Thursday meeting.

The county had been considering setting up a full-time office since last fall in order to attract more attorneys to be public defenders. Compared to private attorney fees, public defenders are on the lower end of the attorney pay scale, which makes it difficult to fulfill the court’s increased demand for them. Providing benefits via full-time work, in theory, should help fix the problem.

Commissioners had considered increasing the hourly rate for public defender work, but after examining the cost of setting up a full-time office, commissioners recognized that doing so would be more cost effective in the long run.

“The (Public Defender) Commission was able to provide us numbers very similar with what we have today at the part-time office,” Allen County Commissioner Cory Noonan said.

Commissioners purchased the building for $175,000 Thursday morning. Expected costs to set up a full-time office are estimated to range between $970,000 to $1.2 million.

Allen County taxpayers, however, won’t be covering the entirety of the cost. The State of Ohio will reimburse 70% of the costs related to public defense, which the county is required to operate.

“Overall, when you look at the numbers that it’s going to cost for the operation, those numbers are going to be relatively neutral to where we are today,” Noonan said.

Public Defender Commission President Joe Patton said he expects final costs to be a little under the estimate.

As for what the office will look like, the official Public Defender, or lead attorney, has yet to be hired, but the size of the office will adjust according to the case load, Patton said.

“We’re still assessing the needs through the numbers of the court, and they will determine the size,” Patton said.

The current part-time public defender’s office is housed at Lima’s Municipal Court. Patton said the new location, like its old one, will allow those in need of a public defender to walk back and forth between the courts and the new office.

“Obviously, we would welcome all (current public defenders) to apply for the (lead) position, and once the lead is picked, we’ll build the office underneath to keep it lean for taxpayer purposes,” Patton said.

Clemans, Nelson & Associates, a labor consulting legal firm, currently occupies the building.

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.