MEDIA — The Delaware County Bar Association may have received a $35,000 grant from Delaware County Council but Democratic members were vocal about their opposition to "subsidizing" lawyers.
By a 3-2 vote with Republican council members John McBlain, Colleen Morrone and Michael Culp, voting in favor and Democrats Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek opposing, council approved the funding for the 1,300-member group. Three are attorneys and members of the bar association: Culp, McBlain and Zidek.
Bill Baldwin, bar association executive director, said the money was to be allocated for the pro bono program, although Zidek noted that the money had gone to educational programming in the past.
"We take our commitment to the indigent residents of Delaware County very seriously in terms of providing legal services to them," Baldwin said. "To that end, we employ a staff person who staffs our lawyer referral helpline and also coordinates our pro bono program."
Madden expressed dissatisfaction with funding 3 percent of the bar association's budget.
"I can't imagine looking a lower-income homeowner of Delaware County in the eye and ask that they subsidize the lawyers of Delaware County," he said. "It's not as if these funds are going into a special account that is solely being held for the purposes of pro bono work. The reality is this is going into ... the general fund ... No other county in the area subsidizes their bar association with taxpayer funds. This is the only county in the area that does so."
Bar association President Craig Huffman said his organization is providing a service that the state mandates the county should in having a lawyer referral number.
"It's going to have to get to be paid for somehow," he said. "If Delaware County were to hire an employee or two to perform this task of well over 5,000 phone calls a year to date, that cost to the county would be substantially greater than a $35,000 grant."
To which, Madden replied, "So you're implying if the grant doesn't come, that the bar association will cease to provide the services that the other bar associations in the Greater Philadelphia Area provide without taxpayer subsidy?"
"I have a fiduciary responsibility to my members," Huffman said. "And part of that is to say that we were not formed to provide services for the county at no cost, which is effectively what you're asking us to do ... (I)f there's no subsidy, we have to evaluate whether that makes sense going forward."
He added that many of the people who call the lawyers' referral number are people who are indigent get the legal assistance they need through the association's pro bono panel.
Zidek said, "A portion of it also facilitates the business interests of the members of the bar association because they get business referred to them by that line."
He suggested charging a fee for personal-injury cases that flow from calls to that line.
Zidek added, "It feels a little bit like a P.R. stunt from where I'm sitting that all of a sudden this money is being used for pro bono programs whereas historically for years and years and years probably, it had been specifically been providing free education to the members of the bar association."
Classes, the councilman said, included "Cyber Threat Management," "The World of Secondary Market Structured Settlements," and "You've Prepared the Money for the Family But Have You Prepared the Family for the Money?"
Madden noted that $35,000 spread out among 1,300 members equates to less than $3 a month.
He also said that other professional organizations in the county do honorable, noble, useful work without receiving any public subsidy.
Baldwin explained the challenge from his perspective.
"It's also difficult to ask our members to pay higher dues and, at the same time, volunteer of their time to provide legal services at no cost," he said. "These people are giving generously countless hours of times that they would normally be able to bill for."
Madden added, "You would say that (dues) are being increased, I would say they are being artificially decreased by the subsidy."
Morrone expressed her support for the grant and the program.
"I believe these services are supporting residents in our community that have nowhere to turn to get advice on legal issues," she said. "It's one thing if you're a lawyer and you know what to do, where to go, how to work the system, what court to go talk to, where to pay a bill. But when you don't know those things, when you're at risk, when you're in a difficult situation and you need somewhere to turn, that 800-number is where you can go.
"I don't see it as being something being taken away from their taxes," she added, "I see it as something added to them - some support that they get when they're in trouble and they need somebody to call."
McBlain spoke of other non-profits that had received county funding from the Domestic Abuse Project to the Delaware County Historical Society to the Centers for Resolution, and in the past, the Delaware County SPCA.
His litmus for funding non-profits, he said, was "Does this program provide some service which offsets or supplants dollars that the government would have to spend otherwise?"
Zidek said his focus was on the Delaware County taxpayer.
"When I think of those who do need in Delaware County, lawyers do not leap to the forefront of my mind," he said.