Angelina County commissioners voice displeasure in state unfunded mandates

Angelina County commissioners voice displeasure in state unfunded mandates
Source: KTRE
Source: KTRE

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - The Angelina County commissioners court has been busy the last two weeks voicing their displeasure in business taking place in Austin.

Last week, county officials were concerned over the passage of Senate Bill 2 that would cap how much increases counties could make every year in property tax rates. This week, county leaders signed off on resolutions that go against unfunded mandates from Austin.

"Every session, our elected leaders in Austin send a letter to Washington telling them to stay out of state business, but then they turn around and put more things on us and make us pay for them," said Angelina County Judge Wes Suiter.

The main mandates the county is concerned about deals with indigent attorney fees and indigent health care costs. If a person facing jail or prison time cannot afford an attorney, the U.S. Constitution requires that counsel be provided. In Texas, court defendants are asked to fill out paperwork that shows the judges and the state their assets and what they can afford.

Lufkin Attorney Scott Tatum has worked for both the state and as a defense attorney.

"I'm sympathetic here to the commissioners on the rising cost of court-appointed attorney fees," Tatum said. " I have seen it on both sides. I think if you are a county that pushes for more crime enforcement then maybe you should have to be responsible for more of the cost, but I think there are ways to save money."

Tatum said that there are some people who can afford an attorney but still slip through.

"There's issues with people who have money to pay a bondsman but not money to pay a lawyer," Tatum said. "That is incorrect. I have seen people say they can't afford to pay my flat fee but they just paid $1,000 for bond. That money would have covered my fee. If not all of it, than most of it."

Tatum's main issue is with attorneys getting hourly rates in CPS Court. It's a court where the county sees no reimbursement.

"I say 90 percent of felony court appointments, the attorney's fee is going to be much smaller than any appointed fee in a CPS case," Tatum said. "The CPS court pays by the hour and these cases are long. Most of the attorneys are up there all day."

Tatum noted on the local level, the court and prosecution does a good job on assisting with the issue, but he feels it is a much larger issue at the state level.

In 2009, the county budgeted $333,828 for court appointed services.  Since then the total has risen to over $713,000. The amount is up 138 percent according to Suiter. Last year, according to the Texas Association of Counties, statewide costs for the attorneys were around $216.1 million dollars. Counties were only given back about 15 percent or $31.6 million. Commissioners said under the current system valuable money is being wasted that could go to better roads or more law enforcement.

"We don't mind providing those services, and we don't mind the states putting down the services on us, but they need to provide the funding," Suiter said. "The state tells the people that they are not raising taxes, but really, they are making us raise the taxes to pay for this instead of the county services we need to provide."

Since the beginning of the new year, Angelina County Sheriff Greg Sanches has been pushing for more manpower. Commissioner Kenneth Timmons said there could be a manpower increase if the state would help out more.

"The sheriff is wanting more people, but we can't hire them and fulfill those state unfunded mandates, so the state either needs to provide money or don't mandate that we do it," Timmons said.

State Representative Trent Ashby said he is concerned as well.

"As a former locally elected official, I am extremely sympathetic to the plight of our local officials," Ashby said.

Ashby added that he has co-authored HJR 73 with Dwayne Burns from Cleveland that would add a constitutional amendment to the ballot for voters to decide if the state should be allowed to make any future unfunded mandates. Ashby said he has also asked for the appropriations committee to put more funding towards court appointed attorneys for the Texas counties.

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