Four of the five county judges in the 10th judicial district met Tuesday morning to review the dwindling balance in the public defender’s budget and consider a funding hike.

Since 2008, Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Desha and Drew counties have each budgeted $5,100 a year toward the public defender’s $123,378 budget with revenue from circuit and district courts and bail bond revenue funding the largest portion. The counties now, however, are being asked to increase their annual payments from $5,100 to $8,870.

The public defender’s ending balance dropped from $37,851 in 2008 to $23,581 in 2009 and $7,978 in 2010, according to Drew County Clerk Lyna Gulledge. Drew County is the administrator of the public defender’s budget.

“You’ll notice from 2009 to 2010 there was a big drop but there was enough money in there that we didn’t have to go up in 2010,” Gulledge said. “But, the ending balance was not that great for the 2011 budget.”

If the 10th judicial district’s five counties do not agree to the increase, the public defender’s budget will have to be cut, Gulledge said.

“How much is in the account right now?” Chicot County Clerk Pam Donaldson asked.

The balance, as of Friday, was $1,081, according to Gulledge.

“So the purpose of this meeting is that they’ve run out of money?” County Judge Damon Lampkin asked.

“Pretty much,” Gulledge said. “The revenues are not coming in, I don’t think.”

A primary source of revenue for the public defender’s office is fines assessed in district and circuit courts.

“Are the courts not collecting the money?” Lampkin asked.

Public defender Steven Porch said circuit judges Sam Pope and Don Glover have been pretty uniform about collecting the fines assessed in circuit court but it is difficult to collect fines when people move out of the area.

While those who fail to pay their fines can be arrested, the counties have to bear the additional cost of jailing them. “It’s costing us way more locking them up,” Donaldson said. “It’s a catch-22,” Porch said.

Ashley County Judge Emory Austin said those who don’t pay their fines in his county will see their names in the newspaper.

“We don’t have enough newsprint to do that here,” Lampkin quipped, apparently referring to the $5 million in old fines he says is on the books in Drew County District Court.

Jacque Alexander, the defense services administrator for the state Public Defender Commission, suggested that perhaps part of budget problem is that Drew County was paying a lot of expenses several years ago that it should have billed to the state.

We never got that resolved,” she said. “So I think your kitty has been depleted.”

Responding to Donaldson’s concern that Chicot County has never seen the public defender’s budget, Alexander suggested that each county adopt an individual budget for the public defender’s office rather than have one county act as an administrator and equally fund the budget.

“Whereas you might be roughly equal now in what you pay as a judicial district, it might be that the bills for one county are more than another county,” she said.

If the budget was based on each county’s case load, Ashley County would be responsible for 32 percent of the budget, Desha County would be responsible for 26 percent, Drew County 18 percent, Chicot County 16 percent, and Bradley County would be responsible for nine percent.

The county judges considered that in 2008 but ultimately decided that Drew County should serve as administrator of the entire budget and each county would fund it equally, sending their payments to Drew County.

“The reason Drew County is doing it is because nobody else wanted to do it,” Lampkin said.

Alexander said the state made a mistake when it began paying the salaries for public defenders but failed to take over the operating costs. “It was a huge mistake and they won’t correct it,” she said. “That’s what we need done. That would relieve you of all of that.”

The county judges will meet again in September to discuss the public defender’s budget and ask that the circuit judges attend that meeting.

Following the Tuesday morning meeting, Seark Today asked Drew County Treasurer Shirley Hancock what is the funding sources for the public defender’s budget and how much did she project from each source. She said she projected $61,000 from circuit court, $8,250 from district court, $8,000 from bail bond revenue and the $7,998 carry-over from 2010.

However, the $8,000 projected bail bond revenue and a $1,048 projection from another fund inadvertently were not included in the revenue projections that were used to calculate the funding increase, according to Hancock.