COLUMBIA — Members of the Boone County Public Defender's Office met with Boone County commissioners Tuesday morning to discuss office space needs for their cramped downtown Columbia headquarters.
Formerly a lumberyard, the building at 601 E. Walnut St. is reaching capacity, said Tony Manansala, the newly appointed district defender, and comptroller Kathy Lear .
Manansala delivered a PowerPoint presentation including pictures of cramped and shared offices, leaking ceilings and a lack of adequate file storage space to the three commissioners in attendance: Karen Miller, Skip Elkin and Ken Pearson, presiding commissioner.
Lear described the progress of other efforts to help lessen the burden on public defenders statewide. House Bills 12 and 22 would increase funding for Missouri State Public Defenders, enabling the group to hire additional attorneys and work with private attorneys to reduce the caseload of public defenders, Lear said. The bills await Gov. Jay Nixon's signature.
According to previous Missourian reports, Missouri ranks 47th in the nation in per capita spending on indigent defense. Public defenders continue to struggle with large caseloads, limited funds and overall inefficiency as a result.
The commissioners said they were willing to help but made clear they would not be pressured beyond their limits.
“We’ve been pretty good to the public defenders,” Miller said, reminding them of the commission's previous efforts and support.
Manansala and Lear agreed but continued to push for their needs. “We like where we’re at, we just need more room,” Manansala said.
However, given the the economy, the commission is suffering as well. “We don’t have the money at this point,” Miller said.
Elkin agreed. “It’s going to be 18 months,” he said, referring to the time it will take to obtain new office space. By the end of the meeting, though, he promised to take a look at the building's possibilities. “We may be able to carve out a corner" for another office, he said.
The commissioners agreed to address the temperature and leak issues, promising to have those issues fixed as soon as possible.
With other issues, such as proper storage space, Miller suggested purchasing fencing, such as a type of chain-link fence, to secure files with a lock. But Miller made clear that the state defender's office would have to cover that cost.
Manansala said he understood the commissioners' suggestions but couldn’t help being frustrated. “I don’t know how I’m going to keep attorneys,” Manansala commented. “There’s going to be a big turnover.”
With 13 attorneys and other positions in the office, Manansala and Lear said they think that there isn’t enough room to function efficiently. In such conditions, they also fear the loss of more public defenders.
“I think we should be higher on the priority,” Manansala said. “We’re just doing what we can with our resources.”