St. Lawrence County legislators hope to save $40,000 each year by contracting out legal appeals for poor people
Sunday, March 9, 2014 - 4:58 pm

By JIMMY LAWTON

CANTON -- St. Lawrence County Legislators are hoping to save $40,000 annually by contacting with non-profit organization handle indigent appellate cases.

The county approved resolution Monday allowing chairman Jonathon Putney, Waddington, to sign an agreement with the non-profit Rural Law Center to handle the county’s indigent appeals.

The center has offices in Massena, Plattsburgh, North Elba and Akwesasne.

The proposed agreement would allow the Rural Law Center to provide representation of up to 80 appeals per year for three years at annual cost of $150,000 for the first year, $155,000 for the second year and $160,000 for the third year.

St. Lawrence County Public Defender Stephen Button says the county typically generates about 77 appeals per year, with an average cost of $190,000. He says the cost peaked at $220,000 in 2012.

“I don’t want to indicate that is going to save the county huge amounts of money, but it has the potential to save us about $40,000 a year,” he said.

Button said details on the actual contract have not been negotiated by he is doubtful major changes will be made before a deal is finalized.

The county is also looking to partner with neighboring Essex and Franklin counties on an agreement that would allow the three counties “pursue a consolidated approach” for providing indigent appellate cases that could reduce costs even more.

Button said joining with the other counties would allow more opportunities for grants on state funding. Button said that plan is still in its early stages and would require the other counties to reach an agreement with the Rural Law Center as well.

“We are the first county that has reached this point with the Rural Law Center,” he said.

Putney said the costs for indigent defense have skyrocketed in recent years the county has been struggling to reduce them.

He said the rising costs prompted the county to investigate.

“We wondered if there were people who were submitting applications that didn’t meet the criteria to qualify. We found that most of the applications by far do fall within the state established criteria. There are just more people in the county now that are eligible for defense,” he said.

Putney said the agreement with the Rural Law Center is a way to combat that growing cost.

On Monday the county also passed a resolution urging the state to relieve the county of its obligation to provide defense by implementing a state system.

Putney said the responsibility falls on the state, but in 1965, it was passed on to the counties. The resolution says the shift resulted in “the inefficient patchwork of services provided at the county level, which are deficient.”