By Jeffery Smith

BATH - Local and state officials urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a law providing mandate relief by requiring the state to take over the cost of legal defense services for the poor, commonly known as “indigent criminal defense.”

“There actually has been a big ground swell of support for this,” said Phil Roche, Steuben County Public Defender. “A lot of folks are really getting behind this. The challenge for all counties is how to pay for this.”

State Sen.Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats, said the law, if enacted, will phase in a state takeover of the full cost of indigent defense by 2022.

The legislation has been approved by both Senate and the Assembly and will soon be delivered to the governor for final action.

“The Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly passed this bill,” Roche said. “My hope is, I think this is our best chance. It has to be signed by Dec. 31.”

O’Mara said he hopes the governor will sign it into law.

“This legislation to get county governments and local property taxpayers out from under this unfunded state mandate marks a significant mandate relief action,” said O’Mara. “We need to take actions like this one if we’re ever going to truly transform the state-local partnership and lead the way to a future of property tax cuts for our local taxpayers.”

O’Mara said that the move to relieve counties locally and statewide of this unfunded state mandate, would save counties statewide nearly $155 million a year.

Roche said the overall cost of the system for Steuben County is about $2.2 million and the state currently pays about $400,000.

“So we’ve got a $1.8 million hole that keeps going up every year,” Roche said. “Not only for regular expenses, but also because the state is requiring indigent defense to do more in terms of expanding eligibility and other things.”

Steuben County officials have long been looking at ways to provide legal counsel for the poor at a reasonable cost.

State officials agreed to a lawsuit settlement in late 2014 with five state counties - Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington - that laid out a seven-year plan to overhaul the public defense system to ensure that low-income defendants will have a lawyer at their first court appearance.