By Robert C. Boruchowitz
A last-minute agreement in the King County Council budget process in November forestalled a major budget cut to the Department of Public Defense that would have slashed 40 positions of the defenders' staff and affected the representation of many of the 19,000 cases the DPD handles per year.
The agreement, crafted by Councilmembers Larry Gossett and Rod Dembowski, with Executive Budget Director Dwight Dively, provided for formation of a work group to consider DPD's staffing needs, caseload levels, transition plans, and the impact that budget changes could have on the clients and the quality of public defense. It also provided that no existing DPD employees could be laid off until the earlier of April 1 or the date the work group report is filed.
Work group members include former King County judges Sharon Armstrong and Jim Doerty, outgoing interim DPD Director Dave Chapman, his deputy Lisa Daugaard, veteran defender Dave Roberson, and law and justice policy advisor Gail Stone,
The agreement followed a flurry of meetings with members of the newly formed Public Defense Advisory Board and public hearings that included passionate presentations by board members and defender staff. There was some media attention including an article in The Stranger entitled "King County's Proposed Cuts to Department of Public Defense Threaten a Crucial Safety Net."
The Advisory Board had submitted a report to the Council and King County Executive Dow Constantine that urged that there be no major changes in public defense or its budget for at least 12 months. The all-volunteer Board first met August 12, 2014, and worked feverishly to produce its report by October 31.
The Board noted, "King County has long been recognized as having one of the finest public defense systems in the United States." Responding to Constantine's proposed cut and plans to reduce the four defender divisions to three, the Board added:
Maintaining this quality in the face of budgetary challenges and a major government restructuring requires careful analysis, evidence-based decision making and the vision to identify where benefits from investments in efficiencies will exceed savings from short-term budget cutting.
The Board emphasized: "King County will be best served in the courtroom and on the balance sheet by a cautious approach that substantially maintains the current budget during the initial 12 months of the biennium and then makes targeted changes, including cuts, where efficiencies can be identified with the benefit of information obtained from experience and the new case management system."
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