When Robert Wilters takes office as Baldwin County district attorney on Jan. 17, he expects to have to make some painful decisions. His projected annual budget is half a million dollars less than that of his predecessor, Hallie Dixon, and some people almost certainly will lose their jobs.
“I just don’t believe I’ll be able to maintain the same staffing levels as are currently there,” Wilters said. “I hope I’m wrong. I’d love to be able to keep everybody.”
But with his budget projected at nearly $2.5 million compared to Dixon’s nearly $2.9 million, Wilters admittedly has already thought about which positions would be eliminated.
The money woes go beyond the district attorney’s office. Presiding Circuit Judge Carmen Bosch, who recently succeeded retiring Langford Floyd as the top administrator, said the county needs four more circuit judges. Meanwhile, the domestic relations division has grown so much that some cases are being farmed out to the existing circuit judges.
“We’ve been paddling like crazy to stay in the same place,” she said.
If Wilters had to take office today, he said, the number of assistant district attorneys would be cut from the current 16 or 17 to 12 or 13. One of the four investigators would have to go. Support staff would be cut from 19 to 13 or 14.
Wilters said that by using experienced prosecutors, doing more training and streamlining the DA’s office, he can keep cases moving. “Hopefully there will not be any more of a delay in prosecuting the cases than what we have now.”
But it won’t be easy. “In Baldwin County, a young lawyer right out of law school within a year or two can be making $100,000 a year. Now, I can’t pay that kind of money, but I’m going to have to raise salaries so that I’m competitive with that kind of money,” Wilters said. Currently, assistant DAs earn $50,000 to $60,000 per year.
Dixon, who chose not to run again after a tumultuous term as DA, has helped ensure a smooth transition, Wilters said. The problem is reductions in revenue from multiple sources.
“One of the problems that we’re having is that the appropriations we get from the state of Alabama are dropping every year. I think back in 2008 the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office got something like $820,000, and in this coming year I will get $399,000. That’s a pretty big cut right there,” he said.
In addition, grants that paid prosecutors’ salaries from the U.S. Department of Justice have “dried up and expired,” Wilters said. New grants aren’t showing up to replace them.
Money received from the municipal court system has also dropped off as a result of legal action taken by the Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center to keep people from being forced to pay court costs, Wilters said. And the DA’s worthless-check unit yields less revenue as more people simply stop writing checks.
Wilters says he is grateful to the County Commission for offering $120,000 in additional funding next year. He has also met with the Baldwin legislative delegation about ways to raise revenue. But he’s frustrated by the money problems.
For example, Wilters said he would like to work with the public school system to identify and head off young people at risk of getting into the criminal justice system. With 2,000 felony cases a year and no new money, he can only dream of such a program.
“There is just no interest in Montgomery in raising revenue, in trying to find new revenue sources,” Wilters said.
Retiring Judge Floyd points out another revenue problem: court costs added onto fines and tickets by the Legislature for non-judicial purposes.
“We’ve run the numbers several times,” Floyd said. “Of all the court costs, the money that comes into the court system, once we disburse it out, 12 percent of it goes to the actual court system.”
Floyd said using court cost revenue for child support and to aid victims of crime makes sense, but many of the uses designated by the Legislature have nothing to do with the court system. All the money goes into the state’s general fund and the Legislature decides how it will be spent. As a result, court costs are often much higher than the actual fine for a minor offense, while the money can’t be used for court expenses such as additional judgeships.
If there were additional judgeships, Wilters noted, he would need four to six more prosecutors.
Bosch said the estimate of four more judgeships being needed comes from the Administrative Office of the Courts. “We need four judges. Nobody’s paying for them at this point in time,” she said. “It’s a statewide problem.”
Floyd, 60, said he expects to stay in some form of private practice. His last day as judge is Dec. 15. By Dec. 2, a local judicial nominating committee that includes Bosch hopes to recommend three people to Gov. Robert Bentley for possible appointment to replace Floyd. The position could come up for election in 2018 or 2020, depending on the outcome of a local vote on a constitutional amendment in the Nov. 8 elections.
Bosch, the first female presiding judge in the history of Baldwin County, says she’ll remain over family court while taking on multiple administrative duties, ranging from dealing with other agencies to overseeing courthouse space to swearing-in jury panels.
Meanwhile, all circuit judges are taking on additional duties to relieve the domestic relations division, which she said is growing fastest of all. They may handle routine divorces where agreements have already been reached and only a judge’s signature and a waiting period are needed, or temporary issues such as property disposition or financial matters that need to be handled while the parties are waiting for cases to be disposed of by a domestic relations judge.
“So there’s plenty of work for everybody,” Bosch said.