If public safety is truly the top priority of Douglas County commissioners, they need to find a way to increase the budget for the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office in the next fiscal year.
If they don’t, one of the 10 attorneys who prosecute criminals on behalf of Douglas County victims will be laid off. With one fewer attorney to take on cases, fewer criminals will be held accountable for their actions.
Douglas County already has enough factors that lead to a higher crime rate: drug abuse, poverty, high unemployment. If the county is unable to prosecute those who commit low-level crimes because of a lack of staffing, the crime rate could rise even higher. That will put more county residents at risk while doing nothing to discourage offenders.
We understand that the county has been reluctant to increase any department’s budget because its general fund has been steadily declining as federal timber safety net payments decreased. The general fund provides the money to operate the district attorney’s office.
Douglas County commissioners have been frugal with the timber safety net payments, knowing they wouldn’t last forever. At the end of this fiscal year, it’s estimated that an extra $53.5 million will remain in the general fund budget.
While that savings could be quickly depleted if the safety net goes away, we haven’t reached that point yet. It seems prudent to cover the cost of 10 attorneys for at least another year and, ideally, for three years.
This issue is surfacing now — more than three months before the county must adopt a budget covering July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015 — because county commissioners just ratified a three-year contract for deputy district attorneys. The contract is the first one negotiated after the deputy district attorneys joined a union last fall.
The contract calls for an 8 percent raise in May with 2 percent increases as the fiscal year begins in 2015 and 2016. It would cost the county an extra $93,503 in 2014-15 to cover the raises and keep the office fully staffed. Over three years, it would amount to $355,555. The prosecutors haven’t had their pay scale raised since 2007 — one reason that prompted them to form a union.
While we know some in the private sector may have gone without raises for just as long, these attorneys handle multiple cases at a time and put in long hours to put criminals behind bars. Their base salaries range from about $52,000 to $91,000 annually. If they left for private practice, they’d likely make considerably more.
The number of prosecutors has also been decreased from 12 to 10 since timber payments began declining.
Despite their conservative budgeting, the commissioners have made exceptions before for worthy expenditures.
This is the time to assure the district attorney’s office that its staff will remain intact.
Otherwise, it might appear the commissioners value having a free garbage dump more than prosecuting criminals.