DA: Turnover hurting public safety

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio told commissioners Tuesday that they need to increase the salaries for the prosecutors in his office because it’s a matter of public safety.

“We’ve lost six lawyers in the last two years because of money,” Consiglio told commissioners at their weekly meeting. He said they took jobs in other counties where they are paid $10,000 to $15,000 more.

“This is a matter of public safety,” the district attorney said. “You need to have people trained who can prosecute the criminals … and deal with bail violations.”

Commissioners are working on a 2019 draft budget expected to include 2 percent to 3 percent raises for county employees as designated by commissioners or negotiated in union contracts.

Some elected officials and department heads told commissioners during budget hearings that they want to counter staff turnover with higher raises in 2019. Otherwise, they expect turnover to continue and affect the work their departments handle.

In response, Commissioners Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr. have asked the requesters to be patient because the county’s forthcoming salary and job classification study is to be complete in mid-2019.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti, however, is recommending commissioners take a step toward addressing the turnover issue by granting some raises in the 2019 budget. The raises he recommends, he said, add up to $151,000 for the 2019 fiscal year, which based on the current draft budget, will end with $5.1 million in reserve.

“We can certainly justify and afford $151,000,” Tomassetti said.

Beam said he cannot go along with that because it means answering one department’s request and turning down the same request from another department.

“I’m not going to tell the lawyers they’re more important than the sheriff deputies,” Beam said. “And I’m not going to tell the sheriff deputies that they more important that the highway guys. When it snows, no one is more important than the highway guys.”

Consiglio said his office is operating at 80 percent strength because of the loss of experienced attorneys.

And as of Friday, the office loses another experienced attorney, Amanda Jacobson, who is resigning to move out of state.

After the meeting, Erb said he expects the district attorney’s office will have no problem hiring an experienced attorney for Jacobson’s position. The salary associated with that position is $50,000, which is covered with money provided by Operation Our Town as a way to combat illegal drug use in the community.

But based on a salary study compiled by First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks, counties comparable to Blair are paying almost $50,000 as a starting salary for assistant district attorney jobs. Blair County’s starting salary remains at $35,000 annually.

During the commissioners meeting, Chief Public Defender Russ Montgomery also renewed his department’s request for higher salaries in 2019. He said he lost a full-time assistant public defender last year who took a job in Lancaster County at $60,000. She had less than two years’ experience and started working in Blair County for $35,000, he said.

Montgomery told commissioners that continuing to pay low salaries is penny wise and pound foolish, considering the legal risks that can develop.

“If we start doing a bad job, it will come to the county,” Montgomery said.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle also attended Tues­day’s commissioners meeting and asked that the starting pay for judicial law clerks be increased from $30,000 annually. Cambria County, she said, pays $48,000 to judicial law clerks and Centre County pays $41,000.

Doyle said she lost a law clerk who took a job in Lycoming County at $52,000 and her current law clerk is resigning in January. At this time, she said she has no candidates.

In Blair County, law clerks primarily help the judges manage civil case dockets, she said.

And because of that help, Blair County judges collectively handled 965 civil cases in 2017, which Doyle said equates to 193 cases per judge.

“We’re not asking for another judge,” Doyle said.

While the salary of an additional judge would fall the state, the staffing costs and related expenses falls to the county.

“It would be cheaper for the county to give us more money for the law clerks,” Doyle said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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