By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON A new bill passed by the Texas 79th Legislature could carry a hefty price tag for Bell County maybe $2.5 million a year.
Senate Bill 6, signed by Gov. Rick Perry on June 18, outlines new provisions for child protective services for the state.
Embedded in the 247 pages that outline the new bill, there is a brief section that has caught the attention of county officials.
Judge Rick Morris of the 146th District Court explained that Section 1.06 of the bill requires an appointed attorney for every indigent parent in every custody case, not just in cases where the parents rights are terminated.
In another provision of the bill, the attorney is now required to interview every person who has significant knowledge of the childs condition, regardless of whether their input is needed for the case.
If an attorney does not meet every mandate, they are subject to disciplinary action, Morris said.
The financial impact of the unfunded mandate from Austin on the county is staggering. Preliminary calculations estimate the cost at $2.5 million annually.
This will affect everyone in county government, Morris said.
At this time, there are 440 CPS cases pending in Bell County. Morris calculated that $1.5 million would be spent for 300 cases for an ad litem an attorney appointed to represent the child and $1.1 million for court-appointed attorneys. Last year the county had 880 CPS hearings.
This is a substantial increase, said County Judge Jon Burrows.
Prior to this bill, indigent parents were appointed an attorney as a charge to the county if a parents rights were potentially eliminated, he said.
It was not a requirement to have an attorney for all child custody cases, Burrows said. They could have one if they wanted one at their own expense.
Judges Morris, Burrows and Charles VanOrden discussed different ways to decrease the cost. Some of the options suggested were to start contracting with legal aid, create a CPS Public Defender office for Bell County, or solicit bid contracts from law firms to provide services.
Any of these alternatives would be significantly less than the $2.5 million, Burrows said.
He said this bill will be an economic hardship not just for Bell County but for others as well.
Earlier in the year, these provisions were removed from the House version of the bill. However, when the final version left the Senate and went to the governor for his signature, the provisions were reinserted.
Where are we going to get the money? Burrows asked. Raise taxes by 3 cents?
SB 6 takes effect Sept. 1. It will apply to cases that are filed after that date.
Judge Morris estimates that from Sept. 1 until the end of the year, there will be 220 CPS cases that will be affected.
The Legislature is currently in a 30-day special session to address the states education system. County officials are not holding out hope that this problem will be addressed.
John Messer, an attorney with Messer, Potts, & Messer is an ad litem attorney. He works every day with children whose lives are being torn apart.
Millions of dollars are being thrown in and not one dollar is going to these children, he said. This is the most ludicrous law for the benefit of no one.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org