Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

County Board freezes support for Legal Aid Society of Wayne County

When Executive Director David Lee Foster asked the Wayne County Board of Supervisors for an additional $141,245 for the Legal Aid Society of Wayne County, Inc., it set off bells and whistles and raised eyebrows. Not only did the Agency not get the additional funds, but it brought to the surface tensions between the Board and the Legal Aid Society.

Public Safety Committee Chair/Walworth Supervisor Bob Plant, along with Finance Committee Chair/Macedon Supervisor Bill Hammond began asking why the County was spending so much money for indigent legal fees, and was there a better way to serve County residents who could not afford legal services.

Under law, a county, along with state, federal contributions, grants, contributions and United Way funds, sets up a system where reduced or free legal services are provided to residents for civil cases. Wills, child support, divorces, child custody and a host of other civil matters are provided. Often courts decide whether a person qualifies and in turn, may appoint an attorney to a case.

Since the 1970s, the Legal Aid Society of Wayne County, Inc. has juggled the majority of cases in the County. According to Foster, his agency has not asked for additional monies for their budget for the past three years, but the caseloads are causing problems. The Agency had two-part-time lawyers on staff, Foster and two office personnel. The offices are located in the basement of the County Clerk’s Office on Pearl Street, in space donated by the County.

The hold-up in approved 2012 budgeted payments totalling $197,654, has led to Foster laying off the two attorneys and having the Court dole out cases to selected attorneys at a rate of $75 per hour, well under the going rate for attorney services.

Foster, along with Society President, Ron Valentine, pointed out at a meeting on Tuesday, that the Court-appointed lawyers at $75 per hour will far outpace the County funding to the Agency.

“We are still evaluating our options. I think we can do better and get the services at a lower price,” said Plant. He stated there are other options the Committees are researching.

One of the options the Board of Supervisors is looking at is the Legal Assistance of the Finger Lakes (LAFL). It was established in 1978 to provide access to the justice system to low-income people and other vulnerable populations with civil legal problems. LAFL is now the Geneva office of Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc. (LawNY), and helps qualified clients in five rural upstate New York counties – Livingston, Ontario, Seneca, Wayne and Yates.

Plant said there was also another Wayne County lawyer toying with the idea of setting up a Legal Aid force under a not-for-profit banner.
Hammond suggested that lawyers appointed by the courts have an incentive to move faster on cases involving legal aid cases set at the $75 per hour rate. He too felt the County would be better off looking elsewhere for servicing ‘legal aid’ cases.

“They just don’t get it,” said Foster of the County’s plans. He said that the cases his agency has handled are a bargain compared to the other Court appointed choices. He pointed out that the two part-time lawyers were paid $28,000 per year based upon a 19 hour work week and that they often put in much more time on a case than actually shows.

County Administrator, James Marquette pointed out to the Board in late 2011 that figures supplied to the Board simply did not add up.

Foster earns about a $44,000 per year base pay plus benefits. He also works for the City of Geneva on a part-time basis that allows him to have his own private practice. He blamed the whole ruckus involving his Agency on miscommunication. He said the additional, changed budget request called for a part-time attorney to move to a full-time status in 2012 in an effort to maximize services and save money in the long run. “We are under a genuine quest to get the biggest bang for the buck.”