JEFFERSON CITY • The head of Missouri's public defender system says a hiring freeze will start Nov. 1 and furloughs could be necessary in January if Gov. Jay Nixon does not release additional money budgeted for the system.
State Public Defender Cat Kelly sent notices last week to judges warning "that your local public defender offices will be running into some unforeseen staff shortages in the not too distant future."
Kelly told the Jefferson City News Tribune that the agency has been trying to control costs since Nixon withheld $1.4 million when the budget year began July 1. Vacancies have been held open an extra 60 days, but that hasn't generated enough savings, she said.
Starting Nov. 1, any new vacancies will be held open indefinitely, Kelly said.
The public defender system represents people in criminal cases who cannot afford to hire private attorneys. Lawmakers appropriated $38.4 million and allotted 587 full-time employees for the public defender system for the fiscal year that runs from July 1 through June 30.
Wanda Seeney, a spokeswoman for Nixon's Office of Administration, said the public defender system and many other agencies had 4 percent of their budgeted appropriations restricted — slightly more than the standard 3 percent that's kept in reserve. Seeney said the administration regularly reviews state revenues, and "changes to expenditure restrictions may be made in the future."
Gov. Jay Nixon said Monday it is early in the current budget year and that his administration would release funds as the money becomes available.
"They weren't picked out any different than anybody else, and they won't be treated differently as we move forward," Nixon said.
Kelly said in her email to state judges that the spending restrictions have left the public defenders system "without sufficient funds to meet its payroll this year" and that the agency was "told to operate from the premise that these funds may not be released at all."
Kelly told the News Tribune that the system has about a half-dozen vacancies that can still be filled but that any new vacancies after Nov. 1 would not. She said if furloughs are required in January, they will affect all employees.
"Our outside guess now is that we'll be looking at somewhere between one and three days of furloughs per employee," she said, "but that will depend on what we're able to accumulate in vacancy savings from the hiring freeze."
She said the spending restrictions imposed by Nixon also affect the litigation expense fund, which covers the cost of hiring expert witnesses, taking depositions, copying records and transcripts, and other costs of non-homicide cases.