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PERB Chipping Away At Case Backlog

During budget hearings Friday, the Public Employee Relations Board told the Senate Finance Committee it is closing more employment complaint cases each year than are being filed, steadily reducing a longstanding backlog in cases. PERB provides mediation and arbitration services between government employees and management, as well as training for mediators, employees, managers and other interested people. A dispute with a government employer goes first to the PERB for a quasi-judicial hearing, and can then be appealed to the V.I. Superior Court.

In 2007, 70 cases were filed with PERB and 131 closed, PERB legal counsel Lorin Kleeger said. In 2008, 146 cases were filed, 143 closed and 150 remained pending. As of the end of the third quarter of 2009, 107 new cases have been filed, 109 closed and the number of pending cases was down to 134, Kleeger said.

"Unfair labor practice charges make up a great majority of the cases,” he said.

In 2007, 41 unfair labor practice charges were filed, and 102 closed; in 2008, 107 cases, were opened and 115 closed, and as of the third quarter of 2009, 58 opened and 80 closed, with 57 still pending.

Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s 2010 budget recommends $793,000 for PERB. This is about four percent less than the 2009 appropriation of $830,000. Zandra Petersen, PERB’s executive director, asked the Legislature to appropriate a little more, if possible.

"If this amount is appropriated, it will barely support our operations," Petersen said. "Of course, the PERB will operate with whatever budget the Senate determines. However … the budget will only cover fixed and limited operating costs. In effect, it will permit the PERB to maintain our current staff, docket cases and employee dispute resolution methods which have no cost associated with them."

Also before the Finance Committee Friday was the Office of the Public Defender. Chief Public Defender Harold Willocks said the overwhelming majority of criminal cases in the territory are represented through the Public Defender’s office, which is obligated to represent all defendants who cannot afford legal representation.

"The courts now appoint the office to 100 percent of the indigent clients," he said. "This is an increase of over 25 percent. Further, there has been an increase in the number of arrests and the amount of cases that will be tried."

With fewer attorneys and salaries below those in the Attorney General’s office, the Public Defender’s office is hard pressed to effectively defend all its clients, which may create problems for the government over time, Willocks argued.

"You cannot increase funding for prosecution and leave out defense," he said. "Because what is going to happen is you will start having to defend against charges of ineffective counsel, which will cost the government more in the long run."

Relatively low salaries make it hard for the office to attract and keep attorneys too, he said. Currently, starting salaries are about $80,000, while the going market rate is between $100,000 and $110,000 a year, he said.

Right now, the office has six attorneys on St. Thomas and four on St. Croix.

"How many more would you need to really provide effective counsel?" asked Sen. Wayne James.

"I would like to have about two more," Willocks said.

The Public Defender’s Office has submitted a general fund budget request of $5.2 million for 2010. If approved, this would be an increase of $1.7 million over the 2009 budget.

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