RIVERSIDE — A Coachella Valley attorney Tuesday agreed to go back to the bargaining table with Riverside County officials after several supervisors indicated she could lose her longtime contract representing indigent criminal defendants unless she lowered her rates.
Barbara M. Brand, whose Indio law office has served as an indigent defense contractor since the 1990s, acceded to re-opening negotiations with the Department of Purchasing & Fleet Management when Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Stone expressed displeasure that she had not followed the example of two other contractors and slashed her rates by 7.5 percent.
Stone called attention to the issue as the board prepared to approve three indigent defense contracts for the next five years.
Under the amended agreements, the Riverside-based Law Office of Virginia Blumenthal and Criminal Defense Lawyers Inc. each agreed to cut their monthly charges to the county by 7.5 percent.
Blumenthal’s previous contract called for a monthly payment of $283,333, plus $22,500 that the county deposited into an interest-bearing trust fund to cover collateral expenses, such as retention of forensic experts and investigators. The new contract brings the costs down to $262,083 and 20,833 a month, respectively.
CDL’s prior contract called for $191,666 in direct monthly compensation and $22,500 for the trust account. The new contract brings the totals down to $177,292 and $20,833, respectively.
Blumenthal’s firm provides attorneys, many of whom subcontract with her, for felony clients in Riverside, while CDL’s lawyers serve misdemeanor defendants in Riverside and all criminal classes at the courthouses in Banning and Murrieta.
The attorneys represent defendants unable to pay for their own representation and whose cases cannot be taken by the Office of the Public Defender because of a conflict, or because the agency is overloaded.
Brand’s office and the lawyers who subcontract with her handle all indigent defense cases in the Coachella Valley and Blythe.
Department of Purchasing & Fleet Management Director Bob Howdyshell told the board today that despite “much discussion” with Brand, she would only accept a 5 percent reduction in direct monthly compensation -- and no change to her trust fund receipts, which are capped at $8,000 a month.
Under the proposed contract, Brand’s monthly payments would go from $158,333 to $150,416.
“If this is Ms. Brand’s bottom line, then maybe our other two vendors would be willing to offer their services (in the Coachella Valley and Blythe),” Stone said. “We have to scrape up savings wherever we can.”
When Blumenthal stepped forward to say her office would be capable of serving the eastern county region at the reduced rates sought by the Department of Purchasing & Fleet Management, Stone appeared ready to put the matter to a vote.
“It’s not my job to make you more profitable,” he told Brand. “We have to make sure the taxpayers of this county are getting the best bargain for their money.”
Howdyshell estimated that the county would save about $237,000 over three years if Brand matched the discounts Blumenthal and CDL accepted.
“That’s a couple more sheriff’s deputies on the streets,” Stone said.
Brand insisted that she had given the county an “extremely cost- effective contract” and felt certain no one could be “any more cost-effective than me.”
“I’m starting at a lower cost,” she told the board. “There’s not a lot of room for me. I have the same amount of cases.”
Supervisors John Benoit and John Tavaglione sympathized with her.
“You have a reputation for being top-flight and timely,” Benoit said. “We have to recognize the uniqueness of the desert environment.”
Supervisor Marion Ashley indicated a willingness to consider Stone’s proposal, while Supervisor Kevin Jeffries withheld comment.
Brand asked for, and the board granted, an additional two weeks for her to reassess her options and engage in further talks with county staff before her contract is put to a vote.
Blumenthal’s and CDL’s contracts were approved unanimously.