Glynn County commissioners voted to cover a $137,000 shortfall in the Glynn County Juvenile Court’s budget at its Thursday meeting.
“The issue is we have a shortfall or a deficit in our budget for court- appointed attorneys,” said Juvenile Court Judge George Rountree. “We have projected that we need $137,000-plus to finish the fiscal year. That’s where we are. We’ve got $2 left in that budget.”
Commission Chairman Mike Browning wanted to clarify the issue, explaining to the public that a nearly doubling of pay to court- appointed attorneys was what lead to the overages.
“For quite some time, your court has been paying these attorneys 50 bucks an hour, or thereabouts. At some point, after the budget was set, you doubled that. You decided to pay them double. So that’s what busted your budget, that’s why we’re short on money,” Browning said.
While the pay increase was a large factor, Rountree disagreed that it was the entire reason.
“We got hit by a perfect storm this last fiscal year. We were as busy as we’ve ever been. We had long cases and believe that we’d have probably had a shortfall in the budget even without the increase in fees. But I certainly agree the increase in fees contributed significantly to the shortfall,” Rountree said. “... The bottom line is, it’s just about impossible to predict what you’re going to have to spend each fiscal year on this category of cases. It’s just a guess. You base it on what it was last year, and you hope you come in under. Well, we didn’t.”
One month into the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Rountree said he decided to increase court-appointed attorney pay to $100 an hour for both in- and out-of-court work.
“In July of last year, quite a few of my attorneys started saying ‘We can’t continue work with what we’re doing,’” Rountree said.
Prior to July, they were being paid $45 an hour for out-of-court time and $60 for in-court time, he said, which is well below the market rate for family law attorneys. Some attorneys went so far as to seek to withdraw from cases.
“I believe they were entitled to more money. I believe (Georgia code) gave me the discretion to give them that increase in pay and I took the bull by the horns and did it,” Rountree said.
He planned to revisit the budget again in six months, at the half-way point, and didn’t expect it to be quite such a significant shortfall.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked at how bad it was. I did not anticipate it was going to be that bad,” Rountree said.
Commissioner Bob Coleman asked how long the pay had been so low. Rountree responded that he wasn’t sure, but he thought it could be as far back as 1975.
There was little doubt the commission would approve his request, Browning said, but he wanted to be clear that it shouldn’t happen again as it sets a bad precedent.
“Doing it this way, it can send a terrible message to our government in Glynn County. People deciding they’re going to spend money that we have not budgeted, and then we’ve got to go in and ask for forgiveness if you will. It puts us in a very bad position,” Browning said.
Ultimately, commissioners approved Rountree’s request.
“Gentlemen, we’ve got to keep the juvenile court open. I think the ramifications of not doing that are much, much greater than us approving this money,” said Commissioner Bill Brunson.
The commission voted 7-0 to increase the court’s budget.
“I want to use this opportunity to send a message to the rest of the county government. Come to us. If you see you’re going to have a shortfall, come to us,” Browning said.
In other business, the commission voted to spend another $72,500 on a Frederica Road repaving project, issue two alcohol licenses, approve a final plat for the Tabby Place subdivision on St. Simons Island and to amend the county alcohol ordinance to allow wine specialty shops to sell wine for consumption off-premises.
At the end of the meeting, the commission held a closed session to discuss pending litigation. Upon returning to open session, commissioners voted unanimously to comply with County Attorney Aaron Mumford’s recommendation on a pending lawsuit.
The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 21.