MANSFIELD -- Court-appointed attorneys in Richland County will see an increase in fees, effective Jan. 1, the first such increase in almost two decades.
Whether it's enough to satisfy local defense attorneys -- and the judges who rely upon them to represent indigent clients -- remains to be seen.
County commissioners, after an 80-minute meeting Thursday with three of the Common Pleas Court judges, voted unanimously to eliminate the current two-tiered system that now pays court-appointed attorneys $60 an hour for work done in the court and $50 for work performed outside the court.
That system, which has been in place for more than three decades, will be replaced with one that pays $60 per hour across the board for the legal work.
The Richland County Bar Association and local judges had asked commissioners in March to raise the fees, a request the judges repeated in a letter to commissioners earlier this month.
Probate Court Judge Philip Mayer and General Division judges Brent Robinson and Phil Naumoff attended the meeting Thursday, recommending the rate be raised to $75 across the board for all court-appointed attorney work.
Commissioner Tony Vero said he had analyzed fees submitted by court-appointed attorneys and found 68 percent of the legal work was done out of court.
In a hypothetical case, an attorney who performed 20 hours of trial preparation under the old system and then 10 hours in court would earn $1,600. Under the rate taking effective Jan. 1, that same attorney would earn $1,800 for the same work.
The decision comes after the state last month, in its new biennial budget, increased the amount of money it will reimburse counties for court-appointed attorney fees.
In the 2019 fiscal year, the state reimbursed counties $66.6 million, a number that will increase to $125.8 million in 2020 and $163.5 million in 2021.
In Richland County, that reimbursement percentage was around 46 percent in 2018, and it may increase to more than 70 percent in the new fiscal year that began July 1.
Allen County commissioners in western Ohio earlier this month increased those same fees to $75 per hour, which was the rate recommended earlier this year by the state's public defender's office.
Richland County commissioners, while saying they understood the need for an increase, said they were choosing to proceed cautiously, promising to review the numbers in mid-year 2020.
Commissioner Marilyn John said the increase will likely keep the costs to the county's general fund close to what it was in 2018.
"We will put it on our agenda in the mid-year review review in 2020 to see what it's doing to our percentages," John said.
"This is just one issue .. there are a lot of other issues that impact the general fund budget that we have to take into consideration," John said, citing an expected increase in health insurance costs in 2020.
In an Aug. 13 letter to commissioners, signed by all five Common Pleas Court judges, an increase was sought to help "ensure that indigent defendants continue to receive effective assistance of counsel here in Richland County."
In the letter, also signed by Domestic Relations Judge Heather Cockley and Juvenile Division Judge Steve McKinley, the judges said the number of attorneys willing to accept court appointments for felony cases has dropped by about a third (48 to 32) since 2007.
They said the number of attorneys willing to handle felony appeals in such cases had dropped by 50 percent (18 to nine).
"We believe the reduction in the number of attorneys willing to handle court-appointed cases is due in part because costs for attorneys in private practice have continued to increase, resulting in fewer attorneys focusing on criminal defense to make ends meet when they can charge more per hour for providing other legal services," the judges said in the letter.
"In addition, the local bar is not getting any younger. The new attorneys coming to town who are willing to handle court-appointed cases are too few in numbers to replace those whose careers are winding down," the judges wrote.
"Should this trend continue, we fear that we will no longer be able to guarantee effective assistance of counsel to indigent defendants as required by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The result may be that a public defender's office will have to be established here, which would be substantially more expensive to the county," the judges said in the letter.
Vero provided a chart showing other counties in north central Ohio, including Ashland, Crawford, Knox and Huron, are still paying the two-tiered $60/$50 rates for court-appointed attorneys.
The document also showed the state average for court-appointed fees is $57 for in-court and $48 for out-of-court work.