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Ada County’s rift with association almost costs Boise-area taxpayers big bucks

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 10, 2017, 3:59 p.m.

Ada County Courthouse in Boise (Meridian Press)
Ada County Courthouse in Boise (Meridian Press)

BOISE – Idaho’s most populated county’s plan to go it alone in hopes of saving money lasted only two days.

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

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

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, 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 capital case representation. It was set up to save counties money. Typically, 30 to 40 percent of the office’s work involves Ada County cases, according to the State Appellate Public Defender Eric Fredericksen.

Last year, the state-funded office spent nearly $700,000 on Ada County cases.

There also are two pending death penalty cases from Ada County 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, Angie.

The SAPD’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, the Idaho Association of Counties government affairs associate. The association administers the fund.

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.”

“It’s an obscure statute,” he said. “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 said, “Including the three people on this side of the table,” referring to the three county commissioners.

“The good news is that there were no serious problems caused as a result of it,” Tibbs said after the commission voted to rejoin the defense fund. “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 nearly $44,000. All 44 counties in Idaho have belonged to the association, which was formed in 1976 and advocates for county issues at state Legislature, provides training and technical assistance, and coordinates numerous other programs.

“We don’t really get much of anything out of it. It’s mainly for the rural counties,” Tibbs said. “We weren’t getting the representation that we thought we deserved for the amount of money we’re paying.”

The Ada commissioners have decided to spend the money they otherwise would have spent on IAC 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.