Lewis County held its third preliminary 2021 budget meeting Thursday, where Superior Court, District Court, Radio Services, and Juvenile Services updated county commissioners on their financial status during the pandemic.
The courts made the most significant requests, with Superior Court Administrator Susie Palmateer presenting three separate requests totaling over $300,000. The first request of $122,000 would cover indigent defense services. According to Palmateer, a change in state law means the county will be on the hook for a bigger share of attorney fees.
“Unfortunately, this is another one of those unfunded mandates,” Palmateer said. “It’s coming by surprise to a lot of the courts … it’s what we’re stuck with and I don’t see it changing, either.”
The courts are also requesting $174,750 to increase how much indigent defense attorneys are paid per case. The request would mean the county would shell out $1,000 per case instead of $850 — it aligns with a 2008 request that was never fully approved, and would likely be the last request for awhile in terms of case compensation, according to Palmateer.
Palmateer and Budget Manager Becky Butler noted that the county is lucky in who they’ve been able to retain for indigent defense. Unlike some other counties, Lewis County’s indigent defense attorneys have decades of experience.
The court’s final request, for just over $9,000, would go toward increasing the Superior Court Commissioner’s salary, which is currently set at $162,337. The increase would get the position back to 85 percent of the judges’ current salaries, which are set by the state.
County Manager Erik Martin also presented the District Court’s request to renew a five-year contract with indigent defense attorneys, which would have built-in annual increases, eventually resulting in a $325,123 increase over 2019.
If a five-year contract were approved, attorneys may be paid double for domestic violence or DUI cases, and more if the case went to trial.
“In 2019 there were four jury trials,” Martin said. “So not very many.”
Juvenile Services did not request an increase, with administrator Shad Hail saying the department is “situated very well.” However, probation manager Ricki Anders predicted a surge in cases as more and more kids slip through the cracks of online learning. Anders said a substantial amount of kids in the system got lost in the transition between eighth grade and high school, sometimes because a lack of secure internet made distanced learning more difficult.
In past summers, Anders said Juvenile Services organized outings to hikes or baseball games in order to keep kids out of trouble. But with COVID-19 restrictions, those didn’t happen, and at-risk youth have subsequently been more prone to using drugs and alcohol or engage in criminal and risky behavior.
“We’re going to see a huge increase in teen pregnancy, I think in the next year,” she said.
Radio Service Administrator Scott Mattoon said although Lewis County’s radio and 911 infrastructure is in need of an overhaul, the department is not requesting a budget increase from the county.
Half of Thursday’s budget meetings were canceled due to a power outage. The last few county departments still need to present their preliminary budgets before commissioners begin to make decisions in November.