Lebanon County Commissioners entered into contracts Thursday, Feb. 2, with two law firms to provide legal services as criminal defense attorneys when the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest.

The new contracts were created in response to an American Civil Liberties Union inquiry last November asking the county to reexamine how attorneys are appointed to cases where a public defender has a conflict of interest preventing representation of a given individual, first reported by LebTown.

The commissioners voted unanimously on Feb. 2 to hire the law firms of Lebanon-based Buzgon Davis and Harrisburg-based Joshua Harshberger for $168,000 to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney at prevailing rates. 

Buzgon Davis will receive up to eight monthly criminal appointments and be paid a flat rate of $8,000 per month while Harshberger’s firm was contracted for up to six monthly criminal appointments and be paid a flat rate of $6,000 per month.

Following the meeting, Commission Chairman Robert Phillips told LebTown that $90,000 of the $168,000 needed to cover the costs was included in the general fund of the 2023 county budget, which passed near the end of December. The other $78,000 will also come from the county’s general fund, according to Jamie Wolgemuth, county administrator.

Under U.S. Supreme Court law, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney at prevailing rates must be provided with a competent lawyer to represent them at no cost.

The Sixth Amendment requires that “indigent” defendants receive a public defender, paid for by their county of residence. However, if the public defender has a conflict of interest – such as often happens when one crime leads to several arrests – the court can compel a private attorney to represent an indigent. Such “court-appointed” attorneys, who serve involuntarily, must also be paid by the county.

In Lebanon County, Wolgemuth said Thursday that county court officials historically went through the list of attorneys who are members of the county bar association and then assigned attorneys from that list to represent defendants in conflicted cases, which he said “wasn’t ideal.”

“That created a lot of issues and a lot of challenges to the court,” said Wolgemuth. “This (issue) came up during budget hearings, and we grappled with whether or not to change the amount in terms of compensation that was in the budget, anticipating this may cost more in the future because the amount of money attorneys are paid is one of the issues.”

Wolgemuth said that there are about 170 conflicted cases in Lebanon County per year, adding that there were: 181 in 2018; 194 in 2019; 173 in 2020; and 162 in 2021. 

“This contract will provide for 168 cases per year, so we are right there,” noted Wolgemuth. (The yearly total number of conflicted cases in Lebanon County for the past four is 177.5.)

Stephanie Axarlis, deputy court administrator, said county court officials surveyed local attorneys last year to determine who would be willing to represent indigent defendants in conflicted cases if the yearly total exceeds the 168-case threshold and in certain situations.

“The survey results gave us a couple of attorneys who are willing to handle criminal cases, so we will reach out to them,” said Axarlis. 

Axarlis said a situation where this same group of attorneys would be utilized involved cases where there are more than three defendants. 

“We believe this (the new contract) will resolve 95 percent of the issue,” said Axarlis. “There are situations where these contracted attorneys will not be able to handle the case, so we would have to look elsewhere. Those will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”  

In addition to the $1,000 paid per case, if a case goes to trial, the firms would be paid $400 per half day – not including jury selection – to provide representation in those instances, noted Wolgemuth.

If recent trends hold, few cases would go to trial, according to Axarlis.

“Historically, we had a lot of trials, but much more recently, this past trial term, we had one case that we believed was going to go to trial, but on the day of jury selection, we had a guilty plea entered, so we had zero trials,” said Axarlis. “That seems to have been the trend since our current district attorney took office. The number of trials has decreased significantly.”

Wolgemuth told LebTown that the $168,000 is guaranteed even if both contracted law offices have fewer cases than their contracted amount. 

“It is unlikely to happen. This is a very predictable, constant problem that the court has been having,” added Wolgemuth.   

In a separate action, the commissioners voted to participate in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s 2023 Black Fly Suppression program to control the presence of black flies. 

Following a study of the Tulpehocken, Quittapahilla and Swatara creeks in 2022 by state officials, it was determined that the “Swatty ” has enough larvae samples present to warrant spraying that waterway. 

“The bordering counties of Schuylkill and Dauphin are already in the program,” said Wolgemuth. “Helicopter spraying will occur occasionally throughout the season at a cost of $20,000 with 75 percent of it being covered by DEP. $5,200 is our estimated cost share, depending on how much material they have to use.” 

In other county business, the commissioners:

  • Moved to apply for an Adult Grant in Aid matching grant in the amount of $81,527 for July 1, 2022, through June 30, 2023, for Lebanon County Probation Services. Applications for the funding are due by Feb. 8, and the county will apply the grant money it receives towards staff salaries. 
  • Renewed a contract with Aging Well PA to provide assessment services for Lebanon County Area Agency on Aging to determine whether an individual meets the functional criteria for nursing home level of care. The new three-year contract runs April 1, 2023, through March 31, 2026. Assessments increase from the current rate of $237.12 per assessment to $249.22 in year one; $256.70 in year two; and $264.40 in year three. AAA also presented two contract amendments for provider services totaling $84, which will be paid from the agency’s current budget allocation.
  • Approved by a 2-1 vote a hotel grant fund application for $1,500 for the Central Penn Doll Collectors Club’s Doll and Toy Show, which is scheduled for Sept. 17 at the Lebanon Expo Center. Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz voted no, noting the group reported a profit from their 2022 show, while commissioners Mike Kuhn and Phillips voted yes, given the number of people (400) who attended in 2022, many of whom came from areas outside of Lebanon County. 
  •  Amended a previous agreement to receive additional grant money to pay for low-voltage gloves for use at the Lebanon County Prison. Wolgemuth said additional monies from the original grant were not claimed and added the county could apply for $1,795, which is the cost for one pair of the gloves, which emit low-voltage shock to unruly prisoners. Lebanon County will have received $5,385 for the three pairs it purchased.
  • Named Humphrey Malama of Newmanstown to the advisory board of the county’s Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention, and the following as advisory board members at Lebanon County Children & Youth Services: Linda Weindel, Judy Haber, Valerie Grimes, Michelle Kauffman and Marianne Bartley, all of Lebanon; and Janine Mauser of Fredericksburg. The commissioners also accepted the resignation of Michael Chabitnoy of Lebanon from Children and Youth’s advisory board.
  • Granted real estate property tax exemptions to three fully disabled veterans.
  • Passed a resolution naming Feb. 6-10, 2023, as Scout Week in Lebanon County, and recognized the Scout Expo, which is scheduled for the Lebanon Valley Mall.
  • Accepted the treasurer’s report and numerous personnel transactions, and voted to approve the minutes of their Jan. 19 meeting.
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...