Public defender offices throughout Missouri could face a hiring freeze starting next month and possible furloughs by the beginning of next year if Gov. Jay Nixon does not release additional funds budgeted for the office, system officials say.
State Public Defender Cat Kelly sent notices last week to judges warning "that your local public defender offices will be running into some unforeseen staff shortages in the not too distant future."
Kelly said in her email to state judges that the spending restrictions have left the public defenders system "without sufficient funds to meet its payroll this year" and that the agency was "told to operate from the premise that these funds may not be released at all."
The public defender system’s budget began July 1 and will run through June 30, 2014.
Joel Elmer, division director with the public defender system, said that if Nixon continues to withhold $1.4 million from the public defender system budget, hiring freezes could be imposed beginning Nov. 1 and staff at offices statewide could be looking at furloughs of one to three days beginning in January 2014.
For example, there are currently 19 employees at the Rolla office (about an hour from Osage Beach), and 13 of those are attorneys. There are currently no vacancies at the Rolla office, which serves six counties — Phelps, Pulaski, Maries, Crawford, Dent and Texas.
However, if a staff member were to quit after Nov. 1 and the funds had not been restored in the system budget at that time, that employee would not be replaced.
Elmer said the public defender system has been trying to control costs since Nixon began withholding the budgeted money by delaying the filling of positions. Elmer said Tuesday that hasn't generated enough savings.
The public defender system represents people in criminal cases who cannot afford to hire private attorneys. Lawmakers appropriated $38.4 million and allotted 587 full-time employees for the public defender system for this fiscal year.
Elmer said if the furloughs were to take effect next year, it would have a detrimental impact not only to employees but the clients served as well as other agencies.
Elmer said cases will be disposed of less quickly because with the furloughs, attorneys will have less time to work and there will be fewer resources available.
“It also means if you’re waiting in jail for a trial, you’ll stay in jail, which also means that county jail budgets will rise,” Elmer said. Closure for victims also will be delayed, he added.
Wanda Seeney, a spokeswoman for Nixon's Office of Administration, said the public defender system and many other agencies had 4 percent of their budgeted appropriations restricted — slightly more than the standard 3 percent that's kept in reserve. Seeney said the administration regularly reviews state revenues, and "changes to expenditure restrictions may be made in the future."
Page 2 of 2 - Nixon said Monday it is early in the current budget year and that his administration would release funds as the money becomes available.
"They weren't picked out any different than anybody else, and they won't be treated differently as we move forward," Nixon said.
Elmer said public defender system officials have requested the funds be released and said the governor’s office is listening.
“We remain hopeful,” Elmer said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.