County to review cost of indigent legal defense

Karn Dhingra By Karn Dhingra

March 19, 2017 at 10:33 p.m.
Updated March 20, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Ben Zeller

Ben Zeller   contributed photo for The Victoria Advocate

The Victoria County Commissioners Court will discuss the increasing costs to provide indigent legal services at its Monday meeting.

Pre-trial services coordinator Nora Kucera will provide the court with a yearly report that breaks down what Victoria County spends on legal services it provides to residents accused of crimes who cannot afford an attorney.

"Unfunded mandates like this continue to be an issue for counties," said Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller.

Counties are required by law to provide legal defense for those unable to afford an attorney.

Zeller said the court is monitoring SB 2, a bill filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, in the current session of the Texas Legislature that would cap county and municipal revenue by providing property owners tax relief.

Bettencourt's bill would hamper counties' ability to raise revenue to pay for unfunded mandates the Texas Legislature continues to impose on local governments, Zeller said.

Commissioners also will receive official notice of Fitch Ratings' upgrade of Victoria County's credit rating from AA to AA+.

"This is a great thing in any circumstance," Zeller said. "It's significant given the economic slowdown. When and if we need to borrow money for projects, we'll get a better interest rate."

Zeller said he was pleased Fitch's report noted Victoria County's "active conservative budget management" as one of the reasons for the credit upgrade.

Commissioners are expected to formally ratify an interlocal agreement between the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Victoria County Sheriff's Office to provide medical services to inmates at the county jail.

UTMB started providing inmate care March 15.

The agreement allows UTMB to offer specialized care to inmates that Victoria County would not be able to offer otherwise, most notably psychiatric treatment, Zeller said.

"The deal is more or less a wash financially for the county," said Precinct 1 Commissioner Danny Garcia. "And it reduces our legal risk."

In other action, Victoria County Airport Commission members are expected to recommend their choice to fill the vacant airport manager position at Monday's meeting.

"Actually, I texted the judge and informed him I would not be attending the meeting," said airport commission chairman Trey Ruschhaupt. "But we have made an offer to a candidate and are expecting a decision over the weekend.

"We're confident this person can achieve the basic goal of making the airport become self-sufficient and an income generator on its own and making sure we offer quality commercial air service to our citizenry."

The Victoria Airport Commission is meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss its air service contract with Texas Sky and its lease agreement with the Texas Mile organizers.


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