Rift with Idaho Association of Counties almost costs Ada taxpayers big money

Ada County Courthouse
Ada County Courthouse

The Ada County Commission on Thursday voted quickly and unanimously to reverse its earlier decision to withdraw from the Capital Crimes Defense Fund and to refuse to sign a joint powers agreement for criminal defense after learning that the move, rather than saving the county’s taxpayers money, would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The commissioners of the state’s largest county had decided to drop out of both of those along with its membership in the Idaho Association of Counties, and informed its outgoing chief Dan Chadwick in a Tuesday letter.

Then, the county got a disturbing call from the State Appellate Public Defender’s office.

“They said we have 167 appeals we need to bring by,” Tony Geddes, Ada County public defender, told the three commissioners on Thursday morning.

Withdrawing from the Capital Crimes Defense Fund, which the Legislature established in 1998 to save counties money, would remove Ada County’s access to the services of the State Appellate Public Defender, whose office provides both felony appeals representation when county costs for an individual case exceed $10,000, and representation in death penalty cases.

Typically, 30 to 40 percent of the office’s work involves Ada County cases, according to State Appellate Public Defender Eric Fredericksen. Last year, the state-funded office spent nearly $700,000 on Ada County cases.

Ada County has two pending death penalty cases that the SAPD’s office is handling: The Erick Hall post-conviction appeals, involving Hall’s rape and murder of two women in Ada County in 2002 and 2003; and the case of Azad Abdullah, who was convicted in 2004 of first-degree murder in the arson death of his wife.

The State Appellate Public Defender’s work meets all constitutional standards for public defense; as a result, it was excluded from the ACLU lawsuit that’s challenging Idaho’s public defense system in counties across the state as constitutionally defective. The Idaho Association of Counties administers the fund.

“All 44 counties are participating in the fund,” said Kelli Brassfield, Idaho Association of Counties government affairs associate.

The Capital Crimes Defense Fund assesses counties fees using a formula based on population, but the fund had sufficient reserves that it didn’t assess any fees this year or last year.

Ada Commissioner Jim Tibbs said the last time Ada County was assessed, the charge was $200,000.

“We are very frugal with the county’s money,” Tibbs said. “Nobody knew this was tied to the SAPD, and that you have to be a participant … to even get the services of the SAPD.”

Geddes told the commissioners their withdrawal from the fund caused a “kerfuffle.” He said, “It’s an obscure statute; not everyone knows about it.”

Geddes said the commissioners could make a “simple fix” by voting to “re-engage in the Capital Crimes Defense Fund and avoid losing the services of the state appellate public defender,” adding, “There are a lot of people that would be very relieved.”

Commission Chairman Dave Case responded, “Including the three people on this side of the table,” referring to the three county commissioners.

Tibbs moved to reverse the decision, rejoin the Capital Crimes Defense Fund and sign the joint powers agreement. Commissioner Rick Visser seconded the motion, and it carried unanimously.

Tibbs said after the meeting, “The good news is that there were no serious problems caused as a result of it – we were able to catch the problem and we’re fixing it.”

The Ada commissioners are sticking by their decision, however, to drop their membership in the Idaho Association of Counties, which also charges fees based on population, and would have charged Ada County $43,932 this year. Every county in Idaho belongs to the association, which was formed in 1976 and advocates for county issues at the state Legislature, provides training and technical assistance on best practices for counties, and coordinates numerous programs that serve all counties.

Tibbs said, “There’s 44 counties, and pretty much everything IAC does is based on a majority vote.”

As the state’s most-populated and most-urban county, he said, “We don’t really get much of anything out of it. It’s mainly for the rural counties. We weren’t getting the representation that we thought we deserved for the amount of money we’re paying.”

The county that houses the state capitol often is derided in the Legislature as the “Great State of Ada,” and Tibbs said Idaho Association of Counties hasn’t helped dispel that image.

Tibbs said he is particularly concerned about the association’s handling of a dispute over magistrate court funding between Ada County and the cities of Meridian and Garden City. The association worked with the Legislature to set up a working group to study it, he said, but tapped mayors and county commissioners from other parts of the state to serve on it, and none from Ada.

“It’s a huge issue to us,” Tibbs said.

This year, Tibbs said the association asked him to testify late in the legislative session on an issue relating to foregone taxes, but the association decided at the last minute not to testify itself, concluding that it was “basically a done deal.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Legislature said, ‘There goes Ada County, the whiners, they’re the only one,’ ” Tibbs said. “I was embarrassed. I was hurt that that happened.” He said he thought, “Don’t let me stand up there and make a fool of myself and Ada County.”

The Ada commissioners have decided to spend the money they otherwise would have spent on association dues on hiring their own lobbyists for the upcoming legislative session. They’ve hired Jeremy Chou and Ken McClure of Givens Pursley for $40,000.

Brassfield said the county’s withdrawal from IAC membership won’t affect its participation in the SAPD and the Capital Crimes Defense Fund. “They can participate in one or the other, both or neither,” she said. “It is totally up to them. IAC is just the administrator for the CCDF.”

Chadwick, whose last day as director was Thursday, had no comment on the rift between Ada County and Idaho Association of Counties. New IAC Executive Director Seth Grigg doesn’t start work until Monday.

Individual elected officials in Ada County still can be members of the association, Tibbs said, and the county will continue to work with other counties on issues. “That won’t stop,” he said.

“Quite frankly, if we’re paying somebody a lot of money to do a job for us, and they’re not doing it, then we need to find a better way to spend our money,” he said. “It was a business decision.”