A sizeable bump in pay brought two Nez Perce County public defenders back to the table this week, filling the indigent defense contracts that were left vacant at the beginning of this month.
Nez Perce County commissioners added $25,000 this week to each of the four public defender contracts, bringing the total for each contract to $210,000 from the $185,000 that was previously offered during August budget negotiations.
Paige Nolta of Nolta Law Office agreed Wednesday to the pay increase, and Rob Kwate of Kwate Law Offices agreed Thursday to the pay hike, commissioners said. Richard M. Cuddihy of Knowlton and Miles, and Joanna McFarland of McFarland Law Office, had already signed on at the earlier rate, but were pleased with the new and more robust contract.
"I appreciate they took another look at what the original offer was," Cuddihy said, adding the increase will allow his office to spend more time on indigent cases.
The Knowlton contract employs two attorneys and a secretary. The contracts do not pay extra for office space or materials.
Commissioners said three applicants applied for the vacant contracts, which were opened last month when Nolta and Kwate opted out of their agreements following a 3 percent pay increase. And because no one was awarded the two vacant contracts, the court continued to add to their caseloads.
Commissioner Bob Tippett said awarding the agreements to a new group of attorneys would have added costs as the replacements tried to get up to speed on cases already worked by Kwate and Nolta - essentially redoing the work that had already been done. In addition, he said commissioners anticipated a learning curve that could have resulted in a bottleneck. Coupled with the good track records of both Nolta and Kwate law offices, Tippett said commissioners thought it was worth taking a second look at the pay scale.
"We were very pleased with the people we had," Tippett said. "They had some high caseloads and we considered that."
Nez Perce County's public defender caseload amounted to 1,900 new cases last year, including 1,366 misdemeanors and 287 felonies. That adds up to about 475 new cases per contract.
Its public defense budget increased from $140,000 per contract in 2011 to $147,200 in 2013, according to the county. That rate jumped to $176,000 in 2015, but saw no increase last year. Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature set aside $4.2 million to improve the state's embattled public defender system after a lawsuit last year by the American Civil Liberties Union alleged Idaho was not meeting its constitutional obligations for public defense.
Although the suit was dismissed, it sent a message to legislators. Nez Perce County received close to $100,000 in grant money last summer. A substantial part of that is earmarked to pay for a murder trial set next spring.
Reinstating Nolta and Kwate adds Nez Perce to the list of north central Idaho counties that have filled their public defender spots this year. Idaho County commissioners are still working on filling that county's public defender contract, which was left vacant when Scott and Victoria Olds withdrew their bid to stay in the position.
Bartholdt can be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2275.