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Tallahassee tries to reassure prosecutors, public defenders

It's been nothing but gloom and doom for Florida's prosecutors and public defenders.

In the midst of a state budget crisis, the governor last month ordered those agencies to cut 15 percent from their budgets for April, May and June, the final quarter of the 2008-09 fiscal year.

Such a steep cut on such short notice had officials scrambling to pare budgets. One official even proposed this doomsday scenario:

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the only way he could cut so much out of his budget so quickly would be to shut down his entire Pasco operation and fire all 49 employees.

Faced with proposals like that, Tallahassee sent out a message this week to 30 of the state's elected state attorneys and public defenders:

"Don't panic," wrote Public Safety Policy Coordinator Randy Ball in an e-mail.

The governor's office said if state revenue stays on target this spring it might not have to withhold 15 percent from the budgets of prosecutors and public defenders after all.

That would be welcome news to public officials who have endured years of budget cuts.

"As we have hung to the cliff by our fingernails," Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober wrote to the governor last week, "this 15 percent cut is the boot stomping on our hands."

• • •

State attorney and public defender budgets are mostly payroll — and that's already been cut.

Florida's prosecutors sliced $24 million out of their budgets in the past 20 months and have left 600 positions vacant, according to Ober, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

To meet the state's latest budget-cutting demands, those offices have proposed stripping some counties of everything but the most essential legal services.

In the Fifth Judicial Circuit, for example, both prosecutors and public defenders in Hernando, Citrus, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties would face long, unpaid furloughs in June.

No furloughs or layoffs are planned for Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors and Hillsborough prosecutors and public defenders. But that's only because they've cut back so much already.

"We've been running short for quite a while," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

Fifth Circuit Public Defender Howard "Skip" Babb Jr. had to let go of six veteran attorneys and said the ones he has left won't like having to work for free come June.

"They've been simmering," he said, "and they're about to overflow when I tell them you're not going to get paid for a week in June."

• • •

But why did the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender propose cutting the Pasco out of his title? Dillinger listed all the cuts his office has already endured:

In 2006 the state took $822,866 from his trust fund to pay deficits run up by public defenders in South Florida that has never been repaid.

Dillinger said his budget has been reduced 13 percent in the past 18 months. He's laid off nine employees and left 13 positions unfilled since 2008. His office now schedules one unpaid furlough day a month.

Then came the 15 percent holdback. Dillinger had to come up with ways to cut $464,046 out of his budget in just three months.

He started drawing up worst-case scenarios he never dreamed he'd have to implement.

"I never believed that any responsible group of legislators would let something like this happen," he said.

Dillinger decided the best bad option was to propose laying off his Pasco employees rather than cut everyone's salaries again.

He said he spared the Pinellas division because it has already absorbed all of the cuts in money and people he has made the past two years.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris Jr. said he understands Dillinger's dilemma. But the judge said denying Pasco residents their right to legal representation would force a constitutional crisis.

"At the end of the day the people are entitled to counsel," Morris said. "If it gets to that, we would do everything we can to find a solution other than shutting down a county."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, took exception to Dillinger's proposal to close his Pasco offices.

"He is not surprised that someone who does not live in Pasco County would make a statement such as that," said Greg Giordano, the senator's chief legislative assistant.

• • •

Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday that it's possible, and perhaps likely, that the state might not have to hold the money back. He'll know by the third week of April.

Crist only ordered the holdback when the federal stimulus money was coming later than expected and dwindling state tax collections punched a $900 million hole in the budget.

But now, Crist said, he hopes the economy is at least stabilizing. State tax collections appear to be holding steady in March. If that holds true for April, Crist will likely release $800 million held back statewide.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Tallahassee tries to reassure prosecutors, public defenders 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 11:32pm]
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