CHENANGO COUNTY – Chenango County and all of upstate may have to follow New York City’s lead when it comes to a significant rate increase for public defenders.
The county’s budget office has warned local officials of a possible 110 percent rate hike that would require the county to pay indigent defense fees of $158 per hour, up from the $75 per hour currently paid.
If enacted, it would be the first pay raise that public defenders have seen in two decades.
According to county attorney Zachary Wentworth, the increase could be ordered by New York State within the next two years.
The anticipated rate hike is the result of action taken by the Manhattan Supreme Court which ordered New York State and New York City to pay assigned counsel a rate of $158, up from $90 per hour. Plaintiffs argued that a failure to increase hourly rates of assigned counsel over the last 20 years has caused a drop in the number of assigned counsel willing to take on cases, which resulted in a heavier workload for fewer public defenders.
The consequence of the court’s recent decision downstate, said Wentworth, is that governments upstate will likely follow suit. It’s reminiscent of what happened across the state in 2001.
“In 2001, the state hadn’t changed the rate since 1986,” said Wentworth, noting that a lawsuit favoring the New York City bar associations at the time eventually led to rate increases in every part of New York State by 2003.
“They’ve done the same thing this time. They’ve sued downstate and the judge downstate has found that it’s likely that the plaintiffs are going to be successful in their action, and have set the rate at $158 an hour,” said Wentworth. “The attorney representing those bar associations downstate has indicated that unless the state accepts those rates across the state, then they’ll be filing a suit upstate through the court system up here.”
“Whether that’s the final number, that’s what it is down there and the possibility of what we’ll see up here,” he added.
The court’s decision has faced some pushback downstate, and that could change the outlook of what happens in Chenango County. New York State in defense has argued that it’s currently in ongoing negotiations concerning compensation to assigned counsel. What’s more, the state’s now in the phase of compiling a 2023 budget and requested that the court refrain from entering any order that may interfere in the legislature’s role in setting assigned counsel rates.
Chenango County has one public defender and two assistant public defenders, along with a paralegal and assisting counsel on staff. Last week, the Chenango County Board of Supervisors unanimously appointed Brett Cowen of Bainbridge to be the county’s public defender. The position has been vacant since the county’s previous public defender, Zachary Wentworth, was given the role of county attorney in March.
The annual salary of the public defender starts at $115,363 and will likely increase according to the county’s 2023 compensation schedule.