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Public defender fee increase could raise taxes, force county budget cuts

By: Bill Melugin

EL PASO, Texas The El Paso County Council of Judges reaffirmed its desire to raise indigent attorney fees $15 per hour at a meeting on Thursday. The change is set to begin on April 1, and would raise out-of-court fees to $75 per hour, and in-court fees to $90 per hour.

"There was no motion of any sort to rescind or take back or modify or postpone it, said District Judge Patrick Garcia.
Thats despite the fact that county commissioners have repeatedly warned the council they dont have the money to support their proposal.
"We want to put the judges on notice that after our multiple requests that they reconsider the costly decision they made to increase legal fees, we want to remind them that means half a million dollar hit to the organization and the taxpayer in the middle of a budget year, said County Judge Veronica Escobar. Every year thereafter, that's one million dollars at least, and over a decade, that's a little over a 3.5 cent tax increase to taxpayers, just for the fee increase alone.
But Escobar told KFOX14 the idea of raising taxes is simply unacceptable.
"We are not willing to raise taxes to fund this, so what does that mean? It means we immediately have to go into budget cuts, Escobar said. "They need to be aware that all departments, whether they be run by elected officials, all department budgets will be on the table.
A recent study by Commissioner Vince Perez found that the cases arent being spread out to the indigent attorneys evenly.
Perez found that a group of roughly 30 attorneys out of more than 130 were receiving the bulk of the cases, and more than 50 percent of the funds.
Because of this, he has asked for a state audit of El Pasos indigent defense system.
Garcia said the decision not to rescind the increase wasnt affected by that request.
It has nothing to do with it, we have absolutely no problem with the audit, it's not an issue or concern for us, he said.
Garcia believes the raise in fees are needed to ensure those who cant afford representation get a quality attorney. He said the fee increase would only start with cases starting on or after April 1.
The council gets the final decision, and despite the fact that county commissioners have protested it, there really isnt anything they can do about it.
"It's really frustrating because we go through a transparent open process every year called budget hearings, members of the media, members of the public come and sit here, and watch our meetings, Escobar said. "To have a mid-year, unbudgeted decision hit the organization this way, it's not just costly, it's harmful.
Escobar told KFOX14 that every county employee is underpaid, and she doesnt believe attorneys should get special treatment at the expense of the taxpayers.
"When you put a premium on one group, not only does that mean the existing folks won't get compensated, it's going to mean they're going to see a reduction in their salary, it's going to impact everyone in this building, Escobar said.