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Tight Budget Stresses DA’s Office

In a perfect world, state mandates for the District Attorney’s Office would come with full state funding; there would be a big enough budget to offer competitive salaries, and on the whole, the 7th Judicial District’s prosecutors would have an easier time discharging their duty.

But it’s not a perfect world. The 7th Judicial District is cash-strapped. This does not mean the office won’t prosecute a case because of its budget — far from it — but it does affect resources, including the ability to attract and retain attorneys and staffers.

“We’re experiencing an historic spike in major case filings,” District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said. “It is impossible to overstate the impact this increase in major case filings is having on our office.”

Montrose, which has the biggest population among the six counties comprising the 7th Judicial District, was this summer on track for a 35-percent increase in felony case filings this year, compared with last — and 2016 saw a 25-percent increase in such filings when compared with 2015.

Filings in Delta County are also up dramatically over last year.

Remaining counties in the 7th Judicial District — San Miguel, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Ouray — haven’t shown the same level of increase, but there have been significant cases filed.

In San Miguel County, Hotsenpiller is prosecuting five people suspected of involvement in the deaths of two children; two defendants are charged with first-degree murder.

Adding to the major caseload, the DA is also faced with the retrial of a Delta County man for murder and as well is prosecuting two more recent murder cases in Montrose County.

Meanwhile, Hotsenpiller lost an investigator, who returned to law enforcement for greater pay; was unable to recruit “an outstanding” bilingual candidate for victim services — who found greater pay at the Delta County Sheriff’s Office — and a legal services staffer, who also found a better paying job elsewhere.

On the day he spoke to the Montrose Daily Press, Hotsenpiller and his office were bidding farewell to Lane Thomasson, the deputy district attorney who had been training to work sexual assault cases. The plan was for her to transition in that role, freeing up the current sex crimes prosecutor, Seth Ryan, to work other major cases. Thomasson was hired as assistant Montrose County attorney.

“Historically and continually, we do not pay our people comparable salaries.  It’s impacting our office,” Hotsenpiller said. “The baseline is, we don’t have sufficient resources to meet the needs we currently have… We have to get help as it is.”

The numbers bear out the DA’s salary worries.

The chief investigator spot pays $11,000 less than the state average, according to a salary comparison Hotsenpiller provided. The assistant district attorney’s salary is the second-lowest in the state for such a position. Of all positions, only the entry-level pay in legal services is at the state average — but the staffers there are not “entry level.” They have more than 132 years of combined legal services experience.

Even local law enforcement, county agencies and local courts pay better, Hotsenpiller said, “outbidding” him for candidates.

The state funds a portion of Hotsenpiller’s salary.

Grant funding pays for the bulk of crime victim services and half the salary for the sex crimes prosecutor position, but although cases are going up, grant funding has remained constant over the past number of years.

Counties within the 7th Judicial District also fund the DA’s Office each year; funding from the counties accounts for more than 80 percent of the office’s revenue.

For 2018, Hotsenpiller has requested more than $2.22 million, total, in funding from Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, Delta, Gunnison and Hinsdale counties, up over the 2017 counties’ contribution of $2.07 million.

County allocations are based on population and adjusted yearly.

Montrose County was asked for the largest contribution — $903,593. Delta County, as the next most populous, has been asked for $665,454, followed by a request for $385,321 from Gunnison County; $175,822 from San Miguel County; $104,603 from Ouray County and $17,805 from Hinsdale County.

Although the total amount represents about a 7.3-percent increase over 2017, the actual amount of new money requested is about 4.4 percent — because of savings carried over.

“We have proven we can continue effective work, even when we’re under capacity,” Hotsenpiller said.

“We’ve been meeting the need even when we don’t have the baseline we need, and we’ve proven we’re efficient stewards of county funds. We continue to drive down our operating expenses.”

The office’s penny penny pinching was by design: it is putting aside carry-over money to help offset major case expenses in 2018.

“We have purposefully saved some money to help pay for the costs associated with the Norwood (San Miguel County) homicide case, the (Nathan) Yager (Delta County) homicide case and our other major cases. We’re planning ahead. We’re making sure we have the capacity to prosecute those cases,” Hotsenpiller said.

The DA was not referring to actual case costs, which don’t necessarily come from his budget, but from mandated state cost funding. Hotsenpiller stressed he does not base his prosecutorial decisions on money.

“That’s not how it works,” he said.

But the mandated cost funding doesn’t pay for all expenses associated with a case.

Hotsenpiller has a standing agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office for use of a deputy special prosecutor in major cases, and as well as secured a commitment for assistance from the AG’s major crimes unit with respect to the Norwood homicides.

While Hotsenpiller is not on the hook for these experts’ salaries, he is responsible for travel, food, lodging and other expenses. He is for this reason trying to set aside carry-over money for 2018.

To calculate what he would need, Hotsenpiller used expenses he had incurred while serving as special prosecutor on a murder case — and retrial — in the 6th Judicial District.

He said his office continues to make do with less by creating a vacancy in its legal services division and reducing operating expenses for 2018, on top of 2017’s reductions.

The office also has an attorney working on fellowship through next August, whose salary is paid through the Colorado District Attorneys Council.

Hotsenpiller said he hopes he won’t be penalized for saving money.

“We trust that the counties aren’t going to punish us for saving money — by not recognizing that the percentage increase looks a lot higher than it really is, because of our carry-over. We trust they are going to continue encourage us to find savings and efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars.”

Counties have to approve their budgets by Dec. 15.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist and the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter at @kathMDP.

Montrose Daily Press | November 29, 2017
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2018-05-24T14:21:47+00:00