Augusta Commission members balked Tuesday at paying $460,000 extra from the city's reserve fund for legal representation for the poor, and will ask for some accountability from the local indigent defense office.
Commissioners did vote to pay $98,000 in bills already incurred for indigent defense but deferred action on the remainder the agency says it needs to operate for the rest of the year.
The money is needed to provide defense attorneys for people accused of crimes from traffic tickets to murder in the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
Without it, the courts would shut down, according to attorney John Long, the chairman of the Augusta indigent defense committee, which oversees the appointment and payment of private attorneys to represent those who cannot afford to hire lawyers.
Commissioner Andy Cheek led the charge to postpone payment, contending the agency is not checking defendants to ensure they are truly indigent.
He described indigent defense as a "vampire on the throat of our city's budget, sucking the life's blood out of it in the future.
"It seems to me that overnight, it has become a large cash cow, and I think a lot of people are trying to ride it to market," he said. "I'd like to see us put some cost constraints and performance measures over there to make sure that people who are claiming indigency are in fact indigent."
Commissioner Bobby Hankerson questioned whether commissioners are getting what they are paying for from indigent defense.
He said he knew about one man who sat in the Phinizy Road jail almost a year waiting to see an indigent defense attorney. He never saw the attorney before going to prison.
"The law says they need some kind of attorney to represent them, but we're paying out the big bucks, and I'd like to be sure we're getting what we're paying for too," Mr. Hankerson said.
"Also, I think we need some surcharges to help us with this because the figures are getting larger, not smaller, and I think we are headed for some tough, tough times here when we're going into our reserves for this kind of money."
City Attorney Stephen Shepard said the checks and balances commissioners are seeking occur on the indigent defense tripartite committee.
"They cut bills they think are excessive," he said.
Mr. Shepard also reminded the board that the current system in which Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties split the cost of indigent defense, paying a percentage based on population, will be replaced at the first of the year with a public defender's office.
Counties will no longer have to bear the expense of capital cases and the state will pay part of administrative costs, he said.
They recommended that commissioners "bear the pain for the immediate future with some relief coming in sight."
Mayor Pro Tem Willie Mays said he wanted to defer action until after the upcoming Association County Commissioners of Georgia meeting so commissioners could discuss the issue with elected officials from other counties.
"This is a statewide problem being dropped on counties," he said.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.