Orange-Osceola Public Defender Robert Wesley says a combination of economic factors has led his office to lay off 11 attorneys, meaning several long-time assistants will lose their jobs by year's end.
Wesley noted the job terminations during a hearing this week, concerning the 2009 downtown Orlando shooting spree suspect Jason Rodriguez, but word of the pending layoffs was making its way around the Orange County Courthouse even before Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Wesley's counterpart, State Attorney Lawson Lamar, just announced raises for staffers in his office, which prosecutes state-level crimes in the circuit covering Orange and Osceola.
The decrease in the Public Defender's office will help patch a roughly $400,000 shortfall and bring Wesley's staff down to about 137 assistant public defenders.
Some in the criminal defense community quietly questioned whether the loss of experienced attorneys will impact the ability of Wesley's office to provide quality representation of indigent clients.
"My thought is we can accommodate it," Wesley said in response to those concerns. "I don't think we're in jeopardy…I think that we'll still get the job done."
He called the layoffs "horrible" and "probably the worst thing I've had to do in my tenure."
"Nobody wants to be in this position," he said.
The layoffs, he said, were based on assessments of assistants' production, preparation and performance. During a time of governmental austerity, the office charged with representing poor criminal defendants has managed to avoid furloughs, across-the-board salary reductions and the termination of high-salary but high-performing assistants.
Likewise, Wesley said, "It was not a last hired, first fired" situation. Though he acknowledged, "We just can't afford a lot of gray hair."
"I had no smarter way to do it than the judgments made by supervisors who work with them every day," Wesley said.
So the people let go run the gamut from 20-year veterans to attorneys with the office for only a year or so.
Factors contributing to the layoffs include: lack of natural turnover with defense attorneys finding fewer jobs available with private firms; a decline in collections from clients of Wesley's office – normally such collections account for 30 percent of funds for operations; a number of staffers who left and then returned under the Family Medical Leave Act; and an increase in health insurance costs.
Across the courthouse courtyard from Wesley's office, Lamar's office has no planned layoffs, said spokeswoman Danielle Tavernier. In fact, Lamar just announced a 5 percent increase for employees earning less than $40,000 and a 3 percent increase for those making $40,000 to $80,000.
Lamar's office employs 140 assistant state attorneys.
Lamar attributed the increases to "extra spending authority" in the State Attorney Revenue Trust Fund salary account, made up of traffic fines and cost of prosecution revenues. He told employees collections were higher than projected.
"The increased collections have enabled me to provide salary increases for the remaining majority of our team members this year," Lamar wrote in a statement to employees. "This comes at a particularly important time of year since we all saw our take home pay shrink due to inflation [and] no cost of living increases since October 2006."
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