Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich spoke out this afternoon against the Mobile County Commission’s “refusal” to include her employees in on a 59-cent hourly pay increase that was part of the 2015 budget approved last Friday.
Rich called a press conference at her office inside Government Plaza to address the decision, which she said isn’t compliant with current laws.
“Even though the law says the employees of the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office are county employees, the county commission has refused to give our office those raises,” Rich said. “The men and women of the Mobile County DA’s office work hard every day for the citizens of Mobile County, and we petitioned the commission to include them in these raises as they should by law.”
Rich said the refusal to include a raise for her employees obviously shows that “prosecuting criminals and helping victims of crime is not a priority of the Mobile County Commission.” She also told reporters this is first time she’s aware of a group of employees being singled out and not included in an across-the-board salary increase.
Friction between Rich and county leaders isn’t anything new.
The two entities are still locked in a dispute over a lack of adequate funding based in two decades of “handshake” agreements between former DAs and the county.
“(John Tyson) made an agreement with the county that he would receive one lump sum and that was all,” Rich told the Lagniappe earlier this year when discussing the budget for her office. “We tried to negotiate for additional funding, but when they wouldn’t negotiate and wouldn’t recognize the local acts – we had no choice but to the sue the County Commission.”
In her original arguments, Rich claimed her office was underfunded by as much as $2.4 million annually. Currently, her office is missing five assistant district attorneys — staffing only 23 of 28 that Rich says are required by local laws.
Rich said her office has filed briefs with Alabama’s Supreme Court, but said there’s “not a set schedule” for when the lawsuit against the county might be resolved. However, that pending lawsuit is the basis of the county’s decision to not extend Rich’s employees the 59-cent hourly pay raise.
Birmingham Attorney LaVeeda Battle is representing Mobile County in the lawsuit, which is currently awaiting a ruling from Alabama’s Supreme Court.
“The Circuit Court of Mobile County ruled in January that Mobile County is under no obligation to pass on pay raises to the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office,” Battle said. “The court’s January 9 order specifically grants a stay on passing along any pay raises, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter.”
Battle said by law the DA’s office is a state agency, which is funded in the state budget and whose employees are paid by the state and get state retirement.
“Mobile County, in its discretion, can decide how much funding it will provide to the District Attorney’s Office each year to help subsidize its operations, and has done so throughout the history of the relationship between the two entities,” Battle said.
She said that’s why the county is waiting on a ruling from the Supreme Court before moving forward with any increase in funding for District Attorney’s office or increased compensation for its employees.
In the meantime, Rich said her office is dealing with historic staffing shortages.
“We had a full office, but due to budget cuts in last couple of years, we’ve haven’t been able to fill positions once attorneys leave,” Rich said. “Fifty-eight percent of our budget used to come from state, but over the last five years that funding has been continually cut. Our state funding is now less than our funding from the county.”
In 2013, the county chipped in about $1.5 million of the DA’s $4.7 million budget, but Rich said the “quasi-state-county” entity also receives money from grants as well as court costs, fines and fees.
“DA employees are ‘at-will’ employees, and they serve at the pleasure of the District Attorney,” Rich said, adding that her 68 employees are not regulated by the Mobile County Personnel Board and not covered under the county’s Local Government Health Insurance Plan.
Despite the complicated nature of the office’s funding, Rich said there should be no confusion about whether or not her staff members are county employees.
“The county could give these employees a raise if they wanted to,” she said during the press conference. “I want to make it very clear, regardless of what the county commission does, the men and women of Mobile County District Attorney’s Office are working hard and will continue to prosecute criminals and help victims of crime.”