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Public defenders’ offices not moving

The offices of the Washington County Public Defenders will no longer be moving to the former Chase Bank drive-thru in downtown Marietta.

The Washington County Commission purchased the property in 2018 for $210,000 with the intent of moving in a county agency.

Extensive exterior renovations were done to the building, which has sat empty since the work was finished in 2019. Before the renovations were completed, it had been unused since September 2016.

In 2019, discussions were held to move the public defenders’ offices into the building, although Ray Smith, lead public defender, was opposed to the idea. The Third Street building would be smaller than the office space they rent in the Dime Bank building on the corner of Second and Putnam streets.

Smith and Joe Medici, deputy director of trial services for the Ohio Public Defender, met with commissioners last week to discuss the matter.

“We’re in a perfect location, you know, between the courthouses, so if the court judge says I need you here in two minutes, we’re there,” said Smith.

“When Commissioner (Kevin) Ritter contacted (Smith), he said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and (Smith’s) first comment was ‘You’re not going to move me. That’s all I need, right, we’re good,'” Commissioner Charlie Schilling said.

He said there are possible other plans for the Third Street property.

“Charlie has an interest in the commissioners moving in there,” said Ritter. “I have less of an interest in that because I’ve moved (offices) three times.”

He said he’s not opposed to the commissioners taking over the former bank drive-thru, but he has concerns about parking for public meetings.

“We haven’t had a serious discussion about it,” he said. “It’s just an empty shell inside, so it could be built out to suit anybody.”

He said he isn’t opposed, but it’s probably where the commission office should be.

“We probably should be near the courthouse,” exclaimed Ritter. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense not to be.”

¯ ¯ ¯

Medici brought news to the commissioners that could save the county more than $200,000 per year.

Ritter said going back about five years, the county paid 75 percent of indigent defense fees and the state paid the remaining 25 percent.

“Each year, the state paid more and more. (Ohio Gov. Mike) DeWine has proposed picking up 100 percent,” he said.

For fiscal year 2021, the county’s contract amount for indigent defense was listed as $237,420. In fiscal year 2022, it is budgeted to be $16,900, a savings of 92.9 percent.

He said the state is even talking about picking up the cost of the rental property at the Dime Bank building.

Medici said they are monitoring the state budget as closely as they can, so they tried to be conservative in the budget numbers given the commissioners Thursday. He said that if everything goes the way they think it will, it will be more than a savings for the county.

“The House bill that recently passed suggests more than 100 percent funding,” said Medici. “In the event that happens, we will owe you money.”

Ritter said that has been Medici’s conundrum — he’s never seen the state owe the county money by paying both the office rental and indigent fees.

Medici said they are in uncharted territory and they’ve never had a situation like this.

“So there’s a lot of questions we have to answer,” he said. “These are problems I’m so happy we have. And so I’m excited for what that could mean for the next few years. But I believe that this contract generally speaks for itself.”

He said he believes it will allow the public defenders’ office to continue to provide the services they have been, but provide them at an even higher level. Smith would be able to do more of the work as a director, and less processing through so many cases, Medici said.

***

¯ Offices of the Washington County Public Defenders in Marietta will not be moving.

¯ It was planned to move the public defenders’ offices after purchase of the former Chase Bank drive-thru on Third Street.

¯ Work on the outside of the building is complete, but the interior is still a shell.

¯ Legislation from Gov. Mike DeWine would pay 100 percent of indigent fees and rent paid by the public defenders’ downtown offices.

Sources: Washington County Commission.

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