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story.lead_photo.caption A judge's gavel is seen Thursday February 21, 2019, in a courtroom at the Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

The Cole County Commission approved an agreement aimed at helping the local public defender office hire outside attorneys to take Cole County criminal cases in an effort to reduce the wait list of offenders who need an attorney to represent them.

Cole County commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding Wednesday with the Missouri State Public Defenders Office.

The memorandum follows the recommendation made earlier this month by Cole County Judge Jon Beetem for the commission to contribute $10,000 before July 1, the start of the state's fiscal year, then ask for $15,000 after July 1. He believed that would increase the chance for the state public defenders office to match the funding.

Beetem believed this new money could take care of 66 cases.

The idea was brought to Beetem's attention by Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler, who found Greene County had done a similar agreement and officials there noticed a reduction in their wait list.

The county will provide funds to engage private attorneys to represent indigent defendants charged with a criminal offense. The state public defenders office agreed to provide funding for the same purpose as its budget allows to match what the county funds.

At the beginning of this month, the wait time for a public defender in Cole County was four to six months, with more than 300 cases on the list.

Pre-trial release program

In other matters Wednesday, the commission approved a request from Pre-Trial Release Coordinator Richard Lee to hire an additional full-time position to help manage the program's caseload. This person will be paid a salary of $45,000. With this addition, there are now four full-time and two-part-time employees working in the program.

The pre-trial screening program is designed to help judges determine which defendants should be bonded and supervised rather than jailed before a trial. The program had been at 140 people at the end of last year, but that number was reduced to around 100 after the beginning of this year due to staffing issues.

Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman and Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle voted in favor of the request, while Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher voted against, saying they had discussed this matter during their budget hearings at the end of 2019 and decided not to add a full-time position. Hoelscher said he did believe the program was benefiting the county and supported its efforts.

EMS logistics officer

The commission also approved making a logistics officer a full-time position for the county's Emergency Medical Service. EMS Chief Matt Lindewirth said the person they hired initially only wanted to work part time, but as the response to the COVID-19 emergency has increased over the past few weeks, it became clear this needed to be a full-time position.

The EMS logistics officer will go from a salary of $32,678 to one of $61,500. The job is to make sure ambulance fleet maintenance issues are addressed, and this person is in charge of ordering and tracking medical supplies.

Lindewirth estimated the logistics officer had saved EMS $25,000 over the last couple of weeks in acquiring needed supplies for COVID-19 response.

Personal protective equipment

Due to the COVID-19 emergency, commissioners also approved waiving bidding requirements for acquiring needed personal protective equipment, particularly for county EMS personnel.

They also approved adding budget lines for the EMS, Sheriff's Department and Emergency Management Department for disaster response. Monies from each department's contingency fund will be put in these areas, $10,000 each for emergency management and the sheriff with $50,000 in the EMS line. This is being done to better track what is spent related to the COVID-19 emergency so the county could potentially be reimbursed by the federal government.

Money that isn't used in these budget lines would go back into the respective department's contingency funds.

Courthouse cleaning

Commissioners also heard Wednesday from Cole County Associate Circuit Judge Cotton Walker, who said he and the other judges at the Cole County Courthouse have been looking into doing a deep cleaning of the courthouse while in-person hearings have almost totally been put on hold due to the COVID-19 emergency.

Walker said the earliest they may resume regular public hearings is April 17, according to information from the Missouri Supreme Court.

Walker said they would like to clean public areas such as courtrooms, hallways and bathrooms while the courthouse has little traffic.

Although the county maintenance staff has been cleaning the building daily, Walker said, a true deep clean of the building has been needed for a "long time." He said he has talked with five companies and, as of Wednesday, three had notified him of an estimated cost, ranging $6,000-$13,000.

Hoelscher said this could be considered an emergency expense if the commission decides to proceed.

Listen to today's News Tribune on Tap for more information about how Cole County is handling the public defender shortage. 

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