DA seeks justice—in funding

ALAMOSA — Along with San Luis Valley Unmanned Aircraft Systems and SLV Noxious Weed Management Association, the 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office spent their Monday asking the San Luis Valley County Commissioners Association for a budgetary increase. The office gave the group of commissioners from each county a 27-page proposal outlining the reasons why more money will help their underpaid and overworked staff.

"I acknowledge that past budget requests submitted to this association have been inadequate requests supported by inadequate data," said District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen. "That's the reality, and the unfortunate result of that is we are well behind of where the office of the district attorney should be."

Last year the counties approved a total of $714,390 for the DA in 2017. For 2018 Newmeyer-Olsen is asking for $942,761. Next year they estimate that they'll be requesting $1,139,856 from the counties.

The office's revenue for 2017 was $1,033,941 and $1,030,965 of expenses left them with $2,977 in reserves. The majority of the revenue comes from the county commissioners but also the Colorado District Attorney's Council (CDAC) and grants.

That money is used to pay the salaries of four attorneys, five support staff and one investigator along with 20 percent of Newmeyer-Olsen's salary. The commissioners also fund roughly $20,000 of a $74,000 grant-funded attorney. The grant is expected to phase out within the next two years. Additionally, this year the office has a CDAC funded fellow attorney who is waiting on bar exam results and there is no guarantee of a fellowship for next year.

An attorney's position was cut last year because the office lost revenue when they could no longer charge defense counsel for electronic discovery. Assistant District Attorney Ashley McCuaig estimated that $60,000 was generated a year by discovery before moving to the paperless system. Newmeyer-Olsen and McCuaig say that they need 10-12 attorneys to have a properly functioning office.

In comparison, the local public defender's office has eight attorneys, three investigators, and a social worker along with support staff. Funded by the state, they receive benefits such as retirement and a higher starting salary.

According to the proposal document McCuaig currently earns $50,000 while the starting salary for a public defender lead deputy is $87,492, which is $37,492 more.

A legal assistant with 40 years of service at the DA's office make $11,604 less than a senior legal assistant with the public defender. Employees in the office haven't seen a raise or cost of living increase since 2007.

"We offer $1,000 of deferred compensation a year," said McCuaig. "That's not any reason a person will stay in this office. When discussing it with employees, frankly the number one game plan is hoping that a spouse has a better retirement plan. That's not acceptable."

As of Aug. 31, the district has seen a total of 765 felonies filed, along with 1,311 traffic and 706 misdemeanor filings. In 2016 there were a total of 46,004 felonies filed in the entire state.

"We don't just prosecute crime," Newmeyer-Olsen said. "We make decisions about what outcomes are right for the community, who should and shouldn't be prosecuted. We meet with community members. Sometimes our office picks up the slack for local agencies and investigates things. We answer questions of 22 different law enforcement agencies and we appear in the court of 10 different judges within this district."

The office saw 16 major crime cases last year and 24 this year. Last week Newmeyer-Olsen had to dismiss a retrial of a 2003 child death case again Krystal Voss due to strained resources. Already there are nine major crime cases scheduled for the first two months of 2018.

According to the American Prosecutors Research Institute, a prosecutor should handle no more than 150 felonies per year or 400 misdemeanors per year. Assistant District Attorney Ashley McCuaig has had 417 felony cases for 2017. Chief Trial Deputy Ashley Fetyko's caseload for 2017 is over 155. Brandon Willms had a felony caseload of 160. All have had individually over 400 traffic and misdemeanor cases on top of the felony cases.

"Every time I take a new felony filing and give it to one of my deputies I'm potentially being unethical because they cannot provide competent, effective legal representation with caseloads that heavy," said Newmeyer-Olsen.

Along with continuations that keep the jail crowded, the overworking without overtime leads to burnout that increases turnover. That creates a downward spiral as the remaining staff is left to pick up the load.

"There are currently eight prosecutors that I can think throughout the state that are still prosecutors that we trained and their training was paid for by you," said McCuaig to the commissioners. "They left because it gives them a 25 percent raise and 50 percent cut in their caseload and they get a retirement account. We can't continue to be the training ground for the rest of the state."

The office doesn't even have enough staff in case an emergency arises. Recently an attorney suffered from a serious migraine and had to go to the hospital. To cover the attorney's absence, a prosecutor from Del Norte had to travel to Costilla County.

"That means that docket didn't start until two and a half hours after it was supposed to because I don't have enough bodies for someone to be allowed to get sick," Newmeyer-Olsen said.

Compared to districts with similar socioeconomic status, the 12th Judicial District receives hundreds to thousands of dollars less per felony. According to the document, there were 1,154 filed in the 11th Judicial District in 2016 while there were only 12 less filed in the 12th District even though the 11th District has a population of 41,188 more. The DA of the 11th Judicial District earned $1,776.61 per felony whereas the 12th earned $625.65.

However, even the 11th District, which is comprised of counties such as Chaffee and Fremont, has had its own caseload and budget problems. Both districts earned less than the $2,166.24 per felony average of other rural districts.

When broken down per citizen, the DA earned $15.17 while the average was $25.06. On the high end the 14th Judicial District, made up of Moffat, Routt and Grand counties earned $31.20 per citizen last year. The district has a population of 53,765, filed 489 felonies and their office received $1,677,541 from their commissioners. With the proposed budget the dollar per citizen for Newmeyer-Olsen's office would increase to roughly $20.

Only the 3rd Judicial District's DA, which has a population of 20,780 people and 369 felonies filed, earned less per citizen at $14.97.

Though Newmeyer-Olsen said its passing is highly unlikely, there is state legislation drafted to help curb the budgetary issues. If enacted, the ADA position would be state-funded with a $120,000 salary, compared to the $70,000 salary that Newmeyer-Olsen is currently asking for. A couple of commissioners volunteered to testify.

The commissioners understood the issue at hand but the budget puts them in a difficult position as well. "We have a pie and the pie is only so big," said Saguache County Commissioner Jason Anderson. "I feel like a broken record saying this the same way I'm sure you feel like a broken record. I certainly don't want to underfund you, but who do we cut?"

Newmeyer-Olsen responded by saying that the district is the only entity that the commissioners are legally obligated to fund. "From our perspective, it's a matter of priority and we feel like we haven't been given the appropriate priority for many, many years," she said. “You all are local representatives and you have a responsibility to your constituents to make sure we are effectively addressing the problem of crime in this community.

"This is a near emergency. We cannot keep pace with crime."

Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen suggested implementing a Valley-wide mill levy to fund the office.

"If a mill levy or a sales tax is the appropriate means to fund our office then we should certainly be pursuing that," McCuaig said. "The reality is at the end of the day we need to be funded one way or the other."

The final budget is scheduled to be approved on October 23.