Tuesday, September 23, 2014

County forecasts costly court case in budget plans

By DYLAN LYSEN, Herald Staff Writer | 6/11/2014

The investigation and ongoing court proceedings related to a rural Ottawa quadruple homicide already have proven costly for Franklin County, Stephen Hunting said, and his office must budget for the pricey trial to come.

Hunting, county attorney, said the county expects the court proceeding to rack up $100,000 more in costs, based on estimates from Lisa Johnson, Franklin County counselor and administrator.

The investigation and ongoing court proceedings related to a rural Ottawa quadruple homicide already have proven costly for Franklin County, Stephen Hunting said, and his office must budget for the pricey trial to come.

Hunting, county attorney, said the county expects the court proceeding to rack up $100,000 more in costs, based on estimates from Lisa Johnson, Franklin County counselor and administrator.

“Right now, it’s my understanding that Mrs. Johnson is requesting that $100,000 be set aside [in the budget],” Hunting said. “We believe that is a pretty fair number based on our study for expenditures from other jurisdictions that have cases such as this. It may be enough, it may not be enough. What we’re trying to do within our budget is take what we can out of our budget to help pay for those costs and expenditures.”

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Kyle T. Flack, 28, Ottawa, in a spring 2013 quadruple homicide at a rural home west of Ottawa. The trial is set for fall 2015 in Franklin County District Court, 301 S. Main St., Ottawa. The ongoing court proceedings’ costs were reflected Monday in Hunting’s budget presentation on behalf of the county attorney’s office to the Franklin County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners listened to budget requests from several departments within the county government Monday and Tuesday during study sessions at the Franklin County Annex building, 1428 S. Main St., Ottawa, to iron out the county’s comprehensive budget. The county has two more study sessions planned for June.

The county attorney’s office was able to save money during the 2013 fiscal year, Hunting said, because the office had job openings that were not immediately filled.

“There was a two and a half month period where we didn’t have a full staffing for attorneys,” Hunting said. “In addition to that in 2013, there was a period of about three months where we didn’t have a full-time staff position filled. Some of that was not so much the attorney position, some of that was we waited additional time to fill that position due to the expenses that the sheriff’s office and our office was incurring from the Johnson County Crime Lab for lab fees when it came to the Kyle Flack case.”

Hunting requested a budget increase for litigation processes, which the office was exceeding in previous years. He said the significant costs for crime lab testing will be finished by the end of 2014 and the county is saving money by using state attorneys provided by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office and by taking advantage of their expertise with the case.

“In one sense, we have added two people to our staff just for this case,” Hunting said. “There is no cost to us for that. So although [the state is] not picking up that tab, I can tell you if we had not requested the additional resources from the attorney general, I would have had to come to you to request additional resources for our office. At our current staffing levels, we could not prosecute this case and still do all the business we’re doing. It’s a stretch and strain on us as it is currently, but we are saving costs in the sense that we have a highly qualified, competent attorney on our staff.”

The capital outlay account, which is used for unexpected expenditures, might take on some of the court proceeding costs, county administrator Johnson said. In a worst case scenario, she said, the county would be financially liable if the trial is moved outside of the county.

Steve Harris, board of commissioners chair, said the expenditures for the court proceedings didn’t bother him.

“From my personal viewpoint, you can’t put a price on justice,” Harris said.

Fighting crime

While the county attorney’s office must set aside extra funding for the trial, the sheriff’s office has seen an increase of jail bookings and an overload of inmates, but might still cut its budget for housing inmates outside the county.

Jeff Richards, sheriff, said the county jail has been forced to “farm out” inmates to surrounding county jails to deal with overcrowding at the Franklin County Adult Detention Center. He said Wednesday during the Franklin County Board of Commissioners meeting that nine inmates were currently housed at other jails. It costs the sheriff’s office $40 a day per inmate to house them at other jails.

Despite that expense, Richards said, the sheriff’s office didn’t spend the $30,000 previously budgeted for housing inmates elsewhere. He proposed instead budgeting $15,000 for the coming year.

The jail has seen a significant inmate booking increase, Richards said.

“This year we are averaging way more than three a day,” he said. “We’ve had several days we had more than a dozen booked in.”

The cause of the uptick in inmates, Richards said, seems clear: methamphetamine imported from Mexico. It has become cheaper for drug dealers to sell imported drugs than make it themselves, he said, noting Ottawa’s proximity to the I-35 corridor puts the community right along the drug supply line.

“Most of the things that people are in for is alcohol or drugs. They are a very large contributing factor on all the crimes that we have people in jail for,” Richards said. “I’ve said it before, but we in Franklin County have a drug problem. That’s not unique to Franklin County, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.”

Technology

Several county departments plan to move from documents stored in physical form to electronic records. The initial cost of transitioning to new technology will be expensive, Commission Chair Harris said, but the issue is inevitable.

It might even become a requirement for health care services, Midge Ransom, health department director, said.

“Well, if not a mandate, it will be an absolute necessity for patients to change and share records among agencies, allow patients to access their records and just simple efficiencies,” Ransom said.

Moving to electronic records would benefit the health department because it would be more efficient for everyone involved, Ransom said, noting requirements for reports ask for structured data not just notes.

“Right now, we do family planning reports and we send to the state,” Ransom said. “Every time a family planning patient comes in for service, we have to do a paper form and send it in. That would all be electronic and transferred electronically to the state. That probably is going to push us if nothing else does.”

Harris agreed electronic documentation eventually would become mandated, forcing such an expense, he said. For now, however, the county isn’t ready to act.

“We want the best for our citizens and for our county,” Harris said. “This is not going to be a decision that is taken lightly and made very quickly.”

The county attorney’s office is hoping to move to electronic documents as well, and remove paper documents completely, Hunting said. Currently, his office is close enough to the physical location of the files that the documentation issue has not caused problems, he said. But the office soon will be moving to a new facility on Beech Street.

“Because we are going to have files that aren’t just a hallway away from the courtroom, we are going to have to do a better job of tracking location of files and things like that within our office of where they’re going,” Hunting said. “One of the ways to make that less of a headache is to convert to a paperless system where you can have access on some type of electronic device.”

The electronic documentation technology won’t be expected until after the 2015 budget cycle, Hunting said, which benefits Franklin County because it will have other counties’ implementation for reference and troubleshooting.

“We’ll let someone else figure out the kinks, if you will, on their expense,” Hunting said.

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