The Hays County Commissioners Court unanimously voted on Aug. 24 to allocate $5 million of American Rescue Plan funds to establish a public defender’s office, which has been an uphill battle for over three years.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Walt Smith initially questioned the viability of using ARP funds that are allotted to addressing issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think there may be a concept that those dollars are just open dollars that we can spend on priorities that we would want to look at, and that is not the case whatsoever,” Smith said. “There’s no allotment there for permanent facilities; it has to end when the pandemic ends.”
He also listed assistance of public health expenditures, economic harm to workers, and small businesses and rental assistance as direct use of funds, to name a few.
However, according to the recovery funds FAQ, “court backlogs resulting from inability of courts to safely operate during the COVID-19 pandemic decreased the government’s ability to administer services. Therefore, steps to reduce these backlogs such as implementing COVID-19 safety measures to facilitate court operations, hiring additional court staff or attorneys to increase speed of case resolution, and other expenses to expedite case resolution are eligible uses.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe expressed her support for the public defender’s office and believes that it is an afffected service and can be deemed as support for essential workers.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell not only addressed the fact that a public defender’s office would improve the lives of those awaiting trial but also noted that it would additionally aid in the battle against COVID-19 and reduce the amount of people in a small, confined space.
Overall, this is a win for the county and for activist group Mano Amiga that have been fighting for this very moment. Members have been speaking publicly at these meetings, holding protests and drafting petitions that have helped secure the fund allocations for the new office.
“I believe that this PDO can be substantiated. Have we needed it? Yes. Has it gotten worse because of COVID? Yes,” County Judge Ruben Becerra said. “This is a calculated assessment that I am willing to make alongside you guys to support this PDO the community has been longing for once and for all."