Dodge County will officially raise the hourly fee for court-appointed attorneys, effective July 1, according to a letter submitted to the Dodge County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.
Under the change, private attorneys who the county appoints to represent defendants who are unable to afford their own representation will earn $95 per hour in both felony and misdemeanor cases. That’s up from current rates of $70 per hour in felony cases and around $55 per hour for misdemeanor cases. The fee for Juvenile Court attorneys will be $75 per hour.
In a letter to the board, District Court Judge Geoffrey Hall and County Judge Kenneth Vampola cite the rising court-appointed attorney fees in other counties across the Sixth Judicial District, and an effort to keep court-appointed attorney fees at a “uniform level” across the district.
“We realize this is a significant increase in the current hourly rate, but we feel it is prudent to pay defense counsel an hourly rate that is consistent with other counties in northeast Nebraska,” the letter reads. “Further, the rising overhead costs of defense counsel also compels this decision.”
The Tribune first reported the potential for the change back in March, noting that nearly a dozen northeast Nebraska counties had made the same fee increase: Thurston, Dakota, Cedar, Wayne, Madison, Stanton, Cuming, Platte, Colfax, Butler and Saunders.
District Court Judge John Samson has also announced the change for Washington and Burt counties.
The cost increase could be significant, Board Chairman Bob Missel told the Tribune in March. Last fiscal year, the county spent $536,939.09 on court-appointed attorney fees, up from the prior year but not as high as a 2014 peak of nearly $700,000. Court-appointed attorney fees in district court alone, excluding juvenile and criminal county, hit a 30-year high last year.
The increase has renewed discussion by the county about the possibility of adopting a public defender’s office. A public defender would be a salaried government official who provides counsel. That system could function as an elected official — similar to the county attorney — or by establishing a contract with a private attorney.
On April 10, the board announced it was establishing a committee to explore the possibility of establishing a public defender’s office.
“This is a conversation that we’ve had in the past,” Missel said at the last board meeting. “The board years ago actually moved toward doing it and then decided not to after some debate.”
In other news from Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting:
Dodge County Sheriff Steve Hespen received approval to purchase four new vehicles for the sheriff’s office, including three new patrol vehicles and one unmarked vehicle. Two of those vehicles will be a 2019 Chevrolet Tahoe PPV 4WD, priced at $36,450 each. One patrol vehicle would be a 2019 Ford F150 PPV 4WD priced at $36,744. And the unmarked vehicle will be a 2019 Chevrolet Impala priced at $20,678. The cars will be replacing a 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe, a 2012 Chevrolet Silverado, a 2011 Chevrolet Caprice and a 2012 Chevrolet Impala, each carrying at least 135,000 miles.