Public Defender’s Office asks for more city funding

Published 7:26 pm Thursday, April 21, 2022

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Speakers focused on adding money to the Public Defender’s Office and cutting the school division’s budget during a public hearing at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Jim Grandfield, a lawyer who leads the city’s Public Defender Office, called for the city and council to add money to it. He asked for $200,000 so the office could help increase salaries and attract and retain lawyers, but the budget proposes no money for it. He noted that a state law allows for localities to supplement funding for a public defender’s office, which is a state agency.

“All we’re asking is that we be supplemented with city money,” Grandfield said, “much like you’ve been doing and have done for many years for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Why? The pithy answer is basic fairness.

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“As a practical matter, you may be sitting here saying, ‘Why, Mr. Public Defender, should we give money to the office’ that, let’s face it, many people define as, ‘you represent criminals.’ Because in this day and age, what we need is a fair, robust and vigorous criminal defense system. We need good prosecutors and we need good public defenders, and candidly, I can’t keep them and I can’t recruit them.”

Grandfield said he’s had an open public defender’s position in his office for 11 months.

“The reality is prosecutors make more money, and the reason they make more money is because of the city supplement,” Grandfield said.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office requested just over $3.6 million and the proposed budget adds nearly $200,000 to that amount.

Elisabeth Culpepper, who also works in the Public Defender’s Office and helped establish a drug court for the Fifth Circuit, asked that the budget include money for a mental health docket in General District Court. The Public Defender’s Office asked for $45,000, but again, the proposed budget includes no money for it.

Culpepper cited the success of the newly established drug court.

“We’re already starting to see success from that drug court,” Culpepper said. “We have a participant who, in the last 16 years, has never been sober unless they were incarcerated. They have just reached their 30th day of sobriety, thanks to drug court and thanks to the money from the City Council that continues to fund drug court. These speciality dockets work.

“Part of criminal justice reform is putting forward solutions that work.”

It costs $91 per day to hold someone at Western Tidewater Regional Jail, which the city already pays, she said, while it costs $800 per day to hold someone with mental health issues in jail due to necessary medications, doctor’s visits and additional security they may need. The cost to supervise someone in the community, she said, runs $4 to $13 per day.

“I do want to shout out (Donna Boykin) with our local Western Tidewater CSB (Community Services Board),” Culpepper said. “She has been instrumental in helping us to build this behavioral health docket. Folks in Suffolk are already getting these services. You are already spending money in the community on these things, but we need these wraparound services. Behavioral docket answers that.”

Culpepper said the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and all of the General District Court judges support such a docket.

“Everybody recognizes and knows that we need this,” Culpepper said.

A trio of speakers asked that council not approve a $2 million increase in city funding that Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III has asked for and that the board approved. The speakers, including frequent board and division critics Margaret Rankin and Deborah Wahlstrom, repeated calls for the division to undergo a forensic audit and accused it of mismanaging money and complained of declining student achievement.

“The city’s appropriating amount to the school (division) needs to show that the school (division) is being successful in how it’s spent that $65 million from last year,” Rankin said, “before considering any increase this year.”

Gordon and the majority of the board, led by Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, have defended the school division’s finances and touted its most recent school activity fund audit and its financial audit, part of the city audit.

Bob Hayes, the chairman of the Western Tidewater Free Clinic Board, said it is seeing a growing demand for its services as the clinic has asked for $214,650, a 16% increase over its current funding level. However, the proposed budget calls for the clinic to be funded at the same level as it is currently, at $185,800.

He said 59% of its patients are from Suffolk, with 813 patients seeking medical services in 2021, coming to the clinic 6,922 times, and 405 dental patients who came to the clinic 1,350 times.

Renovations will allow it to potentially triple dental visits from 2,300 to 6,900, and meet the expected demand in mental health services.

“We are seeing a growing demand in our dental and our mental health program,” Hayes said.

It has served 6,600 patients since 2007 at a retail value of $53.5 million in free medicine, he said, with the city providing it $1.6 million in that time. It received 174 individual donations of about $100,000 last year.

He said with the annual cost for patient care having gone up 21%, the clinic is asking for its full request.

One citizen, Julia Young, asked for a further reduction in the real estate tax rate. The proposed budget calls for the rate to be cut from $1.11 per $100 of assessed value to $1.09. However, with many property values having increased throughout the city, a rate cut would still mean an increase to their tax bills.

Kim Burnoff asked that the city allocate money for horse riding trails, either separately or as part of the Seaboard Coastline Trail.

The proposed fiscal 2023 budget is $767.6 million and would add 52 full-time positions, fully fund the school division’s $67.3 million request and fully fund the $59.3 million of projects in the first year of the city’s capital improvement program and plan.

View a copy of the proposed budget here. Get a copy of the budget presentation here.