Travis County commissioners consider cost-saving changes to public defender’s office grant proposal

Roger Jefferies, the Travis County executive for justice and public safety, and Budget Director Travis Gatlin speak to commissioners about proposed changes to the public defender's office grant proposal July 23.

Roger Jefferies, the Travis County executive for justice and public safety, and Budget Director Travis Gatlin speak to commissioners about proposed changes to the public defender's office grant proposal July 23.

Travis County commissioners will vote July 30 on updates to the county’s grant proposal for state funding to establish a new public defender’s office.

Staff recommended a series of changes that will cut costs while still meeting the goals of the original proposal at a July 23 meeting of the Commissioners Court.

Their recommendations include eliminating 24/7 magistration from the proposal, reducing the number of full-time employee positions requested from 119 to 75 and requesting that the Texas Indigent Defense Commission extend its grant term from four years to five.

The original grant proposal, which commissioners approved May 7, had projected the county would pay around $16 million a year to fund the new office once the four-year grant funding expired in fiscal year 2024.

However, due to last-minute changes to the proposal—which included increased funding for the managed-assigned counsel system that currently handles indigent defense cases—county staff estimated the county will likely pay closer to $21.6 million a year to fund the office, as proposed, in FY 2024.

The county’s budget department “would not have been able to support the original application with the added costs due to forthcoming revenue caps,” staff wrote in a brief.

As a result, commissioners directed staff to develop a revised grant proposal “that was more affordable but still met the goals of the original program,” per the brief.

“It is our best attempt at a balanced approach and to assure that we are increasing the capacity and the quality of indigent representation, whether it is private-appointed counsel or whether it is [a] public defender,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said.

With the aforementioned changes made, staff estimate the grant proposal will cost the county $14.8 million annually when the state funding runs out versus $21.6 million as currently written—a savings of $6.8 million a year.

Currently, the county spends $23.9 million a year on indigent defense. Adding $14.8 million to that budget line item in the future is an increase of 62%, Budget Director Travis Gatlin told commissioners.

“That’s a very significant number, and the only way to get to that number is by slowly getting there over the next [few] years,” he said.

County staff are still in talks with the TIDC about the feasibility of some of these changes.

Eckhardt said it is likely the TIDC will request that certain full-time positions be added back into the proposal and will propose an alternative to a five-year grant term.

Commissioners will vote on the final proposal at the next meeting July 30.
By Emma Freer

Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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