For the second year a row, pay raises extended to other county employees have not found their way to the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office — another consequence of a three-year-old lawsuit that has already cost taxpayers nearly $500,000.
Though the DA’s office is a state agency prosecuting state laws with funding from Alabama’s Office of Prosecution Services, it gets a significant portion of its funding through an annual appropriation from the Mobile County Commission.
When District Attorney Ashley Rich took office in 2010, she attempted to renegotiate the salary schedule Mobile County uses to provide funding for employees of her office. At the time, and still today, that salary schedule is based on 1988 salary levels, which Rich says does not adequately fund the work her department does.
When the negotiations for increased funding proved fruitless, Rich filed suit against the commission in 2012.“I never in a million years thought I would have to sue another county agency,” Rich said this week. “We should be able to work together for the good of our community, but I couldn’t get anywhere with them.”
That lawsuit hinges on whether Mobile County should be required pay for a larger percentage of Rich’s assistants’ salaries and expenses. In early court motions, Rich said her office was being underfunded by as much as $2.4 million when the salary schedules were adjusted to current-day levels.
Rich cited two local statutes stating “any time [the Legislature] approves an increase for state employees” or the county approves an increase in its salaries, “the salaries paid employees of the district attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit shall be increased accordingly.”
However, the county maintains the local statutes are unconstitutional because they would require the commission to match pay increases at both the state and county levels. The county’s counterclaim also argued the county had already been providing more funding than was required by law.
Since then, the county has maintained level funding to the District Attorney’s office throughout the litigation — a $1.5 million annual appropriation.
“We haven’t taken any money away from [Rich] in the these years while this litigation has gone on,” Mobile County Attorney Jay Ross said. “But indeed, there hasn’t been any increases either.”
While county funding has remained the same, state funding has not. After this year’s state budget was approved after the Legislature’s second special session last month, Mobile County saw the same cuts as agencies across the state.
“We took a 12 percent hit in the state budget,” Rich said. “Add that to 47 percent we’ve been cut before and that’s a 59 percent reduction in funding over the last seven years.”
In numbers obtained through the commission’s public affairs office, the Office of Prosecution Services only cut Mobile County’s funding 3 percent this year, from $858,000 to $825,000. Yet, according to Rich, her total state funding was reduced from $984,425 to $892,932 — a 12 percent reduction considering a $31,500 increase in the office’s contribution to employees’ state retirement plans.
Rich said the reductions have caused her office to lose 30 employees since 2007 — something she says increases the current staff’s workloads and slows down the entire criminal prosecution process.
According to Rich, last year her office lost one-third of a team dedicated to prosecuting murder cases. The loss was through attrition, but Rich said her budget won’t allow her to fill the position.
“In Prichard alone last year there were eight murders. This year there have already been 16, and we still have three more months to go,” Rich said. “We’re not turning people away at the door, and we’re still going to provide them service. It’s just going take longer.”
Another issue has been the current salaries for assistant district attorneys (ADAs). Rich said the county only provides funding for a $28,000 salary for attorneys with no experience, but her office subsidizes the schedule in order to pay new ADAs $45,000 a year.
Not including the chief ADA, the highest paid prosecutor in Rich’s office makes a little more than $107,000 a year with 23 years of experience. That brings the average salary of the office’s 22 ADAs to around $58,448. Across the bay, Baldwin County counterparts bring home about the same — $56,645, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Rushing Payne.Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson didn’t respond to opportunities to comment on this story, but President Jerry Carl said the commission was working together on a solution. Carl is the only commissioner who wasn’t in office at the time the legal row with Rich’s office began.
“I think it is very important that we as a commission try to come up with some type of help for [Rich] and her department. Our responsibility is safety,” Carl said. “It’s ridiculous to think we’ve got officers out there risking their lives to arrest these people, but the DA doesn’t have enough money or funding to actually prosecute them.”
However, one thing the commission has not done is extend the county’s ADAs the same 2.5 percent pay raise all other county employees received Oct. 1.
In fact, those funds are being kept in a segregated account along with the funding that would have paid for the 5 percent pay increase the ADAs would have received in 2014. Rich called a news conference last October to publicly request the county include her department in those raises, but she said her office has seen none of that money.
Meanwhile, Rich said the only correspondence she received was from the county’s outside legal counsel telling her the funds wouldn’t be made available until the Alabama Supreme Court made a final ruling in the ongoing lawsuit.
“They’ll tell you it’s because we have a lawsuit going on and they don’t have to pay anything until it’s concluded, but they could help us in the interim,” Rich said. “They’re just refusing to do it. They don’t prioritize public safety. They want to you think that, but if they did, they would help the crime victims of Mobile County by helping get additional monies to our office.”
Ross said that wasn’t the case, adding the funds intended to finance those raises were being withheld because whether ADAs should be included in “county-funded cost of living adjustments” was part of the dispute in the lawsuit.
After several appeals, the case has been pending a ruling from the Supreme Court for more than a year. The county recently requested an update on the case’s status, but Ross said there is no way to know when an order might come down.
But the lull has at least curbed the legal costs both sides have accrued. Rich’s office has paid about $154,000 to the Helmsing Leach Law Firm since 2012, while the county has billed the law firm of LaVeeda Battle just under $300,000 over the same period.
Yet it still appears a solution won’t come until the lawsuit is settled. Even if an agreement was reached in the interim, a spokesperson for Mobile County said, several county departments lost funding on the state level and have asked the county to help make up the difference.
“I don’t think anyone doesn’t want to see their compensation increased. This is a hardworking group of ladies and gentlemen that have a difficult job to do,” Ross said. “When the Supreme Court rules, the county can decide if it’s able to do more, but if they do more than what they’re required to do, they’ll need to make sure they can sustain that year after year.”