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Genesee Legislature urges state to fund legal defense for the indigent

BATAVIA – Genesee County lawmakers are calling on New York State to bear the burden of providing legal defense for those unable to afford it – a service that currently costs the county more than $1 million per year.

Legislators on Wednesday supported a resolution to increase state funding to the indigent legal defense system, and for the state to ensure that counties will not be forced to pay for additional requirements resulting from a 2014 court decision.

The decision stemming from the 2014 Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York case obliges the state to provide public defense for the first time in the more than 50 years since the Supreme Court held that it is a state obligation. The ruling affects only the five New York counties of Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington.

The other 57 counties continue to operate under state regulations that delegate indigent legal defense responsibilities to the counties.

That, according to the Genesee resolution, has placed undue hardship on local property taxpayers.

“Aside from a few grants we receive, we are paying 92 percent of the total cost of $1.4 million annually,” County Manager Jay A. Gsell said.

The resolution commends Assemblywoman Patricia A. Fahy, D-Albany, and Sen. John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, for recently sponsoring a bill “championing a state fiscal takeover … that will lead to improvements to this vital service for residents in need.”

“It’s a pretty important issue,” Gsell said. “There also is a State Senate proposal that seeks a five- to seven-year takeover of indigent defense by the state, which may be politically the best solution, instead of one fell swoop.”

In other action, the Legislature approved a contract with the Genesee County Deputy Sheriffs Association, granting the union comprising about 45 deputies, investigators and sergeants annual salary increases of 2 percent for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The union had been seeking raises of 2 percent in 2014, and 2.75 percent in 2015 and 2016, but that request was rejected by the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee last June. A settlement was reached two weeks ago under state mediation.

“I’m happy but it’s about time,” said Sgt. John L. Baiocco, union president. “This has been two years and three months in the making.”

Pay increases for 2014, 2015 and the first three months of this year will be distributed retroactively. The new pact costs the county about $250,000 this year; those funds were included in the adopted budget.

Baiocco and Gsell said both sides have agreed to return to the negotiating table this summer to work on a new contract, likely a three-year deal. Gsell also said county leaders have asked the deputies to explore the possibility of using high-deductible health savings accounts for health care instead of a more traditional health and wellness plan.

“There would be higher front-end costs for employees but savings down the road,” Gsell said.

“This would be done on a voluntary basis where (the employees) would make a value choice, both financially and in terms of their health care needs.”