A representative from Kansas Legal Services in Emporia requested $4,000 from the Marion County Commissioners at the July 31 payday meeting.
Ty Wheeler, KLS managing attorney, said the request is no more than last year’s and the money compensates the organization for driving to Marion to handle legal cases.
“The numbers are up in Marion County and hours are up, too,” he said. “Some of the cases here are also complicated.”
Last year, Wheeler said KLS served 39 clients; of those, 31 were actual cases, which means they required more than advice or service.
The vast majority of these cases were domestic, child custody and divorce.
“We don’t get into divorce (cases) unless it’s a priority,” he said.
A local board helps KLS determine which case are priorities, Wheeler said.
Prime concerns generally include domestic abuse cases or involve people with disabilities.
Most of the people who need KLS have no money to hire an attorney.
“Those situations might include verbal, mental abuse and going into a nursing home, but generally KLS is involved with some sort of allegation of abuse,” Wheeler said.
He said success in six disability cases, bringing $149,000 back into Marion County last year. That money stays in the county because people living on $694 a month are not driving to Wichita, but instead are spending their money on food, utility bills and other general necessities here.
“This year has been incredibly tough for us,” Wheeler said. “At the end of November, we were notified that the federal government, Legal Services Corp., was doing an across-the-board 9 percent cut in funding.”
That cut meant a reduction of $500,000 in Kansas, Wheeler said. The Emporia KLS office received $42,000 less to operate, which resulted in a reduction of staff.
“We won’t replace (an attorney) until October or November,” he said. “With a $42,000 cut, my goal is to draw down as little as possible from reserve funds.”
Another funding issue involved the state of Kansas’s decision to “get rid of” general assistance on Social Security cases.
“There was a hearing and (the funding issue) had legislative support,” he said. “It was noted that for every $1 paid to us, Kansas would get $7 back. The state of Kansas chose not to, so the contract went away.”
Commissioner Randy Dallke said he wanted the other commissioners to know that in disability cases it takes about a year before the client receives money.
Wheeler said to add six months to that timeframe for the initial application and research.
“When I first started in legal services, I didn’t like disability cases,” he said. “For one thing, we are dealing with somebody whose life story will become really sad.”
This is a person who is either mentally ill or whose body has given out.
“I have (disability) clients who have no income, no medical card and their government assistance is gone,” he said. “I don’t care if I have to waive all my fees—if I can get them a check coming in every month, medical assistance and food stamps.”
Wheeler said most of his clients don’t have a family that can help them.
As an example, he talked about a 55-year-old single farmer who hurt his back and has to wait a year and a half for assistance.
“How much assets does he have left by the time he is done with that? Everything is gone and he is lucky if he can keep the place he was living in without being foreclosed on.”
Kansas Legal Services was established in 1977 statewide. Before that, it was known as legal aid with offices spread out in all 105 counties.
KLS now is in 12 locations: Emporia, Dodge City, Hays, Hutchinson, Kansas City, Lawrence, Manhattan, Pittsburg, Salina, Seneca, Topeka and Wichita.
“Marion is in the Emporia service area,” he said, “which includes seven counties.”
Domestic cases are one of the major concerns involving Marion County.
“Usually the cases involve victims of domestic violence,” he said.
People who call to say they want a divorce because they have a new boyfriend and are hoping to save money on legal expenses are advised to hire a local attorney.
“But if someone is touching a child or hitting (a spouse), we will get orders to protect victims of domestic violence,” he said.
The breakdown of the 31 cases closed in 2011 included 16 domestic violence, 12 disability cases with five successful outcomes, one court-appointed case, one case involving the Kansas Agricultural Mediation Service and one other case.
“Every courthouse has flyers and pamphlets about the KLS,” Wheeler said. “Judges and attorneys also know about us.”
One area that concerns him the most, Wheeler said, was a recent statewide legal need assessment.
“On the last (assessment), about 80 percent of those surveyed had a legal need in the last three years, and of those only 20 percent sought legal assistance,” he said.
The No. 1 reason they gave for not seeking legal advice was that it wouldn’t help or it was too expensive, he said.
“The fact that there are people out there who might need an attorney and don’t come to see us because they don’t think we can help or it’s too expensive—that bothers me,” Wheeler said.
The commissioners thanked Wheeler for his presentation and said they would be discussing it at a later date.