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Sun, April 21

Legislation to safeguard funding for rural counties passes

Legislation that protects court-related funding for Mohave and 12 other counties next fiscal year was approved by the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday.

The House approved House Bill 2706, 31-21, with eight lawmakers not voting.

Rep.

Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, and Sen.

Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson, wrote the general appropriations bill.

The Senate approved the bill Wednesday, 18-2, with two senators not voting.

The bill awaits the signature of Gov.

Jane Hull.

The bill cuts the so-called Fill the Gap program by 50 percent by eliminating the funding in Maricopa and Pima counties, but it retains funding for Mohave and the other counties, said Brian Lawson, legislative analyst for the House Democrats.

The funds for the fiscal year starting July 1 will be $870,600 for indigent defense and $850,000 for county attorney's offices.

Contacted before the vote, Mohave County Public Defender Dana Hlavac said the legislation prevented the county from losing about $250,000 in Fill the Gap funding for fiscal 2003.

He said lobbying efforts by District 1 Supervisor Pete Byers and the county's lobbyist in Phoenix, Mike Williams, helped spare the cuts.

"These reductions would hit Mohave extremely hard in light of the county's current fiscal constraints," Hlavac wrote Byers in a letter that became part of the lobbying campaign.

"The cuts would be particularly devastating to the indigent defense efforts within Mohave County."

Fill the Gap funds amounted to $70,000 for the public defender's office for the current fiscal year, $42,000 for the legal defender's office and $130,000 for the county attorney's office, Hlavac said.

Senate Bill 1013, which went into effect Sept.

1, 1999, created the program by establishing a 7 percent surcharge for fines for criminal offenses.

In Mohave County, fine revenue for the past fiscal year amounted to $19,224 for the county attorney's office and $18,257 for superior court, according to the 2001 report on Fill the Gap from the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.

"For us, it is very important," Hlavac said.

He said his office uses the funds to pay for computer software and training used to improve performance of deputy public defenders.

The counties faced the loss of the funding because the Legislature planned to use the money to reduce the deficit, said Alan Stephens, executive director of the County Supervisors Association of Arizona.

"It is good for the rural counties," he said.

"It's not good for the urban counties."

Rural counties will use the Fill the Gap funds to pay for county attorney positions, indigent defense and aid for the courts, Stephens said.

Fill the Gap is an important program because it expedites the processing of cases in the courts, said Rebecca Jahn, a spokeswoman for the Criminal Justice Commission.

"At least there are monies set aside for rural counties to expedite the case processing time," she said.

The caseload in Mohave County has increased as much as 110 percent over the past five years, Hlavac wrote in his letter.

Juvenile filings increased from 872 to 1,832.

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