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Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Cost of murder cases stalls hiring of ag educator

Mercer County won't fill vacant Extension post

By Shelley Grieshop
CELINA - The prospect of paying exorbitant attorney fees for indigent murder suspects is preventing the county from hiring a full-time OSU Extension ag educator.
Mercer County Commissioners on Tuesday said they'd like to fill the vacant position as soon as possible but costs associated with several pending high-profile cases are holding them back.
"We're looking at these public defender bills coming down," commissioner Jerry Laffin told OSU Extension Director Dr. Stephen Wright at a meeting Tuesday. "It's really weighing on our shoulders right now."
Ohio counties by law must pay attorney fees for court defendants who declare insufficient finances. Approximately 35 percent of the attorney fees are reimbursed to the county by the state. However, the county must pay the sums upfront.
The Mercer County prosecutor is pursuing charges against two suspects linked to the double homicide of Robert and Colleen Grube of Fort Recovery in November 2011. A case also is pending against a man charged with the November shooting death of his girlfriend in Rockford. All the suspects have court-appointed attorneys.   "In some cases it requires two attorneys for each (defendant). If the cases drag out, it could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars," Laffin explained.
Wright has previously recommended to commissioners that they fill the vacant post of ag educator with a full-time employee.
Former county ag educator Jim Hoorman quit Sept. 1 to take a full-time position in Putnam County. He had split his time between Mercer County and OSU Extension projects at the state, regional and national levels.
The county is required to pay $40,000 toward the salary of a full-time ag educator; OSU would pick up the remaining wage amount and pay all benefits. Commissioners are considering the employment of a part-time agent costing the county $20,000; however, it's more difficult to find experienced and qualified candidates, they said.
Wright said the best person for the job would be someone with a master's degree, even though the salary could exceed $70,000. A candidate with a bachelor's degree could serve as a program coordinator but could not write or teach curriculum, he explained. The county would foot the entire bill for a program coordinator, Wright added.
The county is not mandated by law to fund OSU Extension services. However, Wright and commissioners agree an ag educator is vital locally because of ongoing Grand Lake algae woes linked to area farmers. They also noted the position is important in a county that consistently ranks number one in the state in agriculture receipts.
Wright said he understands the county's financial predicament.
"You know I never give up ... but I respect your situation," he said.
Commissioners voiced optimism. They noted sales tax revenues continue to climb over last year's figures and feel they'll soon be able to commit to the hiring of a full-time ag educator.
Commissioner Rick Muhlenkamp, also a farmer, admitted that prior to being sworn into office in January he didn't understand why the position remained vacant. He changed his mind after learning about the county's "day-to-day finances," he said.
"I think something will work out in the future. We just have to be a little cautious at this time," he added.
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