DA threatens lawsuit over 2014 budget
Five years of slashed budgets, no merit pay increases and high staff turnover have led to an angry tipping point in Mesa County’s 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office, prompting threats of a lawsuit against the Mesa County commission to stop more lost funding.
District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said if need be he will sue the county commission, asking a judge to halt the adoption of a 2014 budget in Mesa County should funding for his department yet again end up on the chopping block.
This, as county officials Monday are scheduled to unveil a $148 million 2014 budget proposal, envisioning countywide cuts blamed on declines in property and sales tax revenues. This, also, amid requests for 11.75 new full-time employees across county departments. None of them would be with the DA’s office, which has requested flat funding consistent with the office’s 2013 budget.
“I don’t believe we can come close to fulfilling our constitutional and statutory obligations with any more cuts, much less a 5 percent cut,” Hautzinger said.
When department heads in Mesa County’s 2014 budgeting process were asked to envision how cuts of up to 5 percent would impact their offices, Hautzinger painted a scenario envisioning the firing of two to three deputy prosecutors.
“We would have to dismiss the cases which are the most time-consuming and most likely to go to trial, so we would be eliminating prosecution of most driving under the influence cases and most domestic violence cases,” the DA wrote to commissioners.
County Administrator Tom Fisher indicated last week Hautzinger’s office may not avoid another budget hit on some level. But public safety, as a whole, can expect less of a cut than other parts of the county, consistent with priorities given to him by commissioners, Fisher said.
“We’re all going to share in the downturn in revenues,” he said. “It’s hard to value one area of public safety over another.”
Fisher said prosecutor salaries are “an issue we’re going to have to deal with. Absolutely, it’s an issue.”
That’s cold comfort for Mesa County DA staffers, who’ve watched 20 of their colleagues leave during five years of frozen wages, many for higher paying jobs both in and out of law practice.
A Daily Sentinel analysis of salaries in larger DA offices with populations greater than Mesa County but comparable in felony filings — the 8th Judicial District in Larimer County, the 19th Judicial District in Greeley and the 20th Judicial District in Boulder — shows Mesa County consistently lags behind Front Range counterparts.
Mesa County Deputy District Attorney Bo Zeerip was hired in 2007 and is now a senior-level trial attorney, juggling anywhere from 100 to 150 felony cases at a time.
Up to 20 percent of the caseload includes the most heinous crimes, such as sexual assaults.
After seven years as a Mesa County prosecutor, the 43-year-old earns $65,000 annually, which fits in the salary range of some entry-level prosecutor positions on the Front Range. The father of five children, all under age 10, is still “grateful for what I have.” But nobody’s happy.
“With inflation, I’m making significantly less money now than I was three years ago when I was promoted to this position,” Zeerip said. “My costs of living go up every year, and every year the county takes more out of my paycheck for benefits, which are not good.”
Adding insult to physical injury, Zeerip said he learned on a recent trip to a local hospital he’d qualify for “indigent” medical care.
“If something doesn’t happen,” he said, “I’m looking elsewhere.”
“If Mesa County wants lawyers with one to two years experience trying murders and sexual assaults, then they should continue funding as they are,” Zeerip added.
Zeerip’s colleague, Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Savage, still pays down more than $90,000 in law school debt eight years after he was hired in Mesa County. His last merit pay raise, 6 percent, came five years ago this month. Like Zeerip, he’s a senior trial attorney handling upward of 80 felony cases at a time, including anywhere from eight to 10 child-sex assaults.
Savage’s wife recently went back to work to help support the family, which includes three sons.
“I never expected to get rich doing this job, but I would hope to get by and hopefully be able to get my kids braces when I need to,” Savage said.
Less experience, greater roles
With the frantic pace of turnover in the DA’s office, that’s meant promoting younger, less experienced lawyers faster, according to Hautzinger.
“We cannot be effective advocates for the people of Mesa County when we don’t have the experience levels to hold our own with either defense counsel or the public defender’s office,” he said. “We’ll wind up having to do more plea bargains and will probably end up losing more trials.”
Thomas Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, said Hautzinger’s office isn’t alone in struggling to keep staff.
“We’re losing people because of salaries,” Raynes said. “Local budgets have been cut while we’re seeing increases in the public defender system. That’s not a knock on public defenders, but if you’re looking for a balanced judicial system both sides need to be equally funded.”
“Are there ways the state can augment county contributions to level the playing field?” Raynes asked.
Consistent with a new law calling for legal counsel for indigent adults during plea bargaining, the Colorado Public Defender’s system received funding for 37 more attorneys statewide, with an unknown number bound for Grand Junction in 2014. There are projections of up to 28,000 new cases likely entering the public defender system as a result.
“I asked for 10 (attorneys),” said Steve Colvin, head of the Grand Junction public defenders, tongue in cheek. “I expect we’ll get one, hopefully two.”
Colvin rejects any suggestion freer-flowing state dollars give him a significant leg up on Hautzinger’s office.
“They’re just like us,” Colvin said of the DA’s office. “They’re running to stay in place.”