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Attorneys ask Blair for increased salaries

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County commissioners are being asked to come up with raises for county attorneys in 2019 because too many are quitting for higher-paying jobs.

“We can’t run an office of six to eight people who are newbies,” First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks told commissioners Monday afternoon while reviewing his department’s proposed budget. “We need experienced prosecutors.”

Chief Public Defender Russ Montgomery, who also addressed commissioners, prepared a 2019 budget proposal with $15,000 raises for attorneys with more than five’ years experience and $10,000 raises for those with less than that.

“They deserve it,” Montgomery told the commissioners, emphasizing that two of his department’s attorneys meet the qualifications to handle death penalty cases.

Weeks told commissioners that if the county sets the starting annual pay for attorneys at $45,000, it will still be lower than the $54,187 annual starting pay in similar counties.

Blair County’s starting pay for an attorney in 1997 was $29,000, and in the 21 years since, it’s moved up $6,000 to $35,000. Those wages haven’t followed any cost-of-living scale, Weeks said.

About 90 minutes after Weeks and Montgomery addressed commissioners, President Judge Elizabeth Doyle made a similar request on behalf of the law clerks, typically young attorneys who work with the judges.

Doyle said her current law clerk, who started in July at $30,600 annually, is resigning in January because of the pay.

“This revolving door makes it very difficult for the judges to serve the Blair County citizens,” Doyle said.

Commissioners are confronting a difficult task as well because the 2019 budget shows expenses exceeding revenue by $5 million, the year after the commissioners raised property taxes by 25 percent.

“It’s not that we don’t sympathize,” Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said.

But the budget has to balance; doing that will require an “almost Solomon-like” action, Erb said, referring to the biblical king recognized for his wisdom in addressing difficult tasks.

Erb also reminded Doyle that the state fails short of its obligation to a $70,000 per judge allocation annually. With five judges, Blair County should be receiving $350,000 from the state but at this time, the state’s 2019 revenue is projected at $232,500.

At the budget review meetings, Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy has been advising county department leaders that she will compile a list of requested raises for commissioners to review and consider. The list should be ready for Wednesday.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti is already on record of increasing starting pay for county attorneys to $40,000. But so far, he hasn’t had enough support for that level of starting pay.

Weeks, in trying to draw support, told commissioners that law school students are graduating today with $300,000 of debt. That makes it almost impossible, he said, for them to consider taking a job with a starting salary of $35,000.

Beam told Weeks he made a good point, but asked why the cost of that education should fall to taxpayers. Beam also put the same question to Doyle in light of Weeks’ stance.

“Taxpayers aren’t responsible for anyone’s education,” Doyle said. “But common sense tells you that … their price tag is higher because there are fewer people who have those skills.”

Court Administrator Janice Meadows also advised the commissioners that the state is now requiring the county judges to secure continuing education credits. Meadows put $2,000 in the 2019 budget to cover the judges’ educational expenses.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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