Commissioners call large, years-old legal defense bills “budget killers”

YORK – The York County Commissioners weren’t necessarily happy, while considering claims Tuesday, when they were presented a $43,000 bill from a local attorney for public defense fees that span what Chairman Randy Obermier called “years long.”

Commissioner Stan Boehr questioned the large bill while the board members were reviewing claims, during their regular meeting.

“This amount, these fees, are for a number of clients over multiple years,” Obermier explained. “This board has had this discussion in the past. Because it’s from over a long period of time, it really is a budget killer.”

State statute requires counties to pay for the legal defense of indigent defendants.

“But the state statutes do not direct attorneys to bill the counties in a certain timely manner,” Obermier said further. “The state does not regulate how they bill their services. In my opinion, this is irresponsible as some of these bills go back to legal services in 2021. The judges sign off on these and then we have to pay them. But again, by holding them back and presenting at once, this is a budget killer.”

The other board members also questioned the practice of holding back bills for such a long period of time with the expectation to be paid all at once even though the county had already moved onto new fiscal years.

Deputy York County Attorney Christopher Johnson addressed the board, saying, “This is as close to an unfunded mandate as you can get. State statute says when services are rendered for an indigent defendant, the county shall pay the bill and it doesn’t say it needs to be done in a certain amount of time. But some juvenile cases can linger on for years – there is one that is current now that was filed back in 2018, as an example.

“The practice is that the attorney turns in the bills, the county attorney’s office reviews the bills, signs off on them, then they go to the judge for approval,” Johnson continued. “I believe Judge Homolka has developed a new policy in that they have to turn them in every 30 days or so. Some law firms do that, turn them every 30, 40, 50 days, but others do not. But again, this is one of those unfunded state mandates.”

“Would it behoove us to write letters to our judges, to ask them to set these practices for the attorneys?” asked Commissioner Woody Ziegler.

“We’ve had those conversations before,” Obermier responded. “It might also take some visiting with NACO (the Nebraska Association of County Officials) about pursuing some state legislation in the future.”

Obermier also noted that more “held over bills” will be coming to the board from the same public defense attorney, in amounts he called “large.” He said it was his understanding the bills would be presented in two weeks and maybe more in the future.

The commissioners approved the claims as presented, but Obermier said he would be reaching out to state lawmakers and NACO to talk about this issue.

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