ASHTABULA — The Office of the Public Defender is moving to a new location in January.

The Ashtabula County Public Defender Office, 4817 State Road, must find a new home because the building it has occupied for more than a decade has been sold and Community Counseling is moving in, Director Marie Lane said Tuesday at the Ashtabula County Public Defender Commission meeting held at the Ashtabula County District Library.

“We are really forced to find a new place,” she said. “We are looking in Jefferson and Ashtabula.”

Lane is considering three places: the first and second floors of the Warren and Young Law Office in downtown Ashtabula; a building on Collins Boulevard in Ashtabula and the former Radio Shack on North Chestnut Street in Jefferson.

“Right now, of the three, the Warren and Young building is possibly the best deal,” she said.

It would give the public defenders and staff 6,000 square feet of office space for $4,000 per month rent. The office comes in ready-to-move-in condition because lawyers already work there. The Warren and Young staff would move to the third floor, Lane said.

“We would rent the first two floors,” Lane said. “It comes furnished and with high-speed internet.”

The Office of the Public Defender operates to defend indigent persons who are accused of a crime and who are at risk for going to jail. They defend cases including felonies, misdemeanors, preliminary hearings, arraignments and extraditions. They provide these legal services to all persons and base qualification decisions solely on the accused person’s income.

Lane, who is running for county common pleas judge in the November election, has served as director of the Office of the Public Defender since 1998.

According to Ohio law, the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners created the Ashtabula County Public Defender Commission to determine the qualifications and size of the supporting staff and facilities and other requirements needed to maintain and operate the office. Member terms are set at four years.

Last month, the commissioners passed resolutions appointing two new people to fill vacant seats on the Ashtabula County Public Defender Commission. The two members whose terms expired did not wish to be reappointed, and new members were appointed — John Kusar and Joshua Walker. Their terms started immediately and will end on Feb. 8, 2024, according to the resolutions.

Last November, the Ashtabula County Public Defender’s Office asked the county commissioners for more employees and more office space during a budget hearing. 

Lane pushed for more employees since the state had started reimbursing counties at 70 percent — a higher rate for indigent defense costs than in years past.

With greater reimbursement rates in mind, Lane asked for a 2.5-percent wage increase for current staff, a relocation to larger office space, the hiring of two additional attorneys and one administrative assistant in June 2020 and the hiring of another attorney and an investigator in 2021. 

Lane said the caseload goes up every year and every year she presents a budget with the money the county has provided without asking for more during the year. The staff is overwhelmed, she said.

In March, county commissioners agreed to fund one more attorney, but there was no room for the addition at the office’s State Road location.

“We agreed to evaluate mid-year, but then COVID-19 hit,” said Casey Kozlowski, president of the board of county commissioners.

Lane blamed the pandemic for stalling the situation, as well. 

Next month, the Ashtabula County Public Defender Commission will meet again to talk to county commissioners about next year’s budget.

“Everything we spend is reimbursed at 70 percent,” Lane said. 

The Ashtabula County Public Defender Office, 4817 State Road, Suite 2020, Ashtabula, is closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are accepting phone calls at 440-998-2628. 

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