DAs' salaries lag behind public defenders'


— The Routt County commissioners were handed some surprising numbers last week when they learned that the county prosecutors who defend victims and try people accused of crimes get paid much less than the public defenders representing those suspects.
"It really is interesting that the prosecutor makes less than the public defender," Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall said after looking at the numbers.
"You call it interesting," District Attorney Paul McLimans said. "It's annoying as hell."
One could see why McLimans may be a little irritated. With 23 years of experience in the prosecutor's office, he makes about $70,000 a year. His counterpart in the public defender's office makes about $85,000.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners received the numbers at budget meetings being held for all county departments.
McLimans is asking Routt, Grand, and Moffat counties for a bigger-than-usual raise since they, the counties of the 14th Judicial District, all pitch in to pay for the office's expenses.
"I only get a raise every four years," McLimans reminded the commissioners. Elected officials' salaries are set every four years. He wants his salary boosted from $70,000 to $78,000.
Right now, the state pays for most of every district attorney's salary in the state, $53,600 to be exact. Counties fund the rest of the district attorney's salary. That means, Routt, Grand and Moffat counties currently contribute about $17,000 to McLiman's salary.
But McLimans said it's not just him. His deputy district attorneys are getting paid much less than public defenders with comparable experience. Salaries for the deputy district attorneys comes out of the office's general budget which is paid for by the county.
His top deputy district attorney in Steamboat Springs makes $67,500, compared to his counterpart in the public defender's office who makes more than $80,000, McLimans said.
McLimans said the salary discrepancy has driven good attorneys away from the prosecutor's office.
"I put less experienced people up against more experienced defenders all the time," McLimans said.
"Victims expect prosecutors who are very experienced and competent," he added.
The executive director for the Colorado District Attorneys Council said metro areas like Denver can can afford to pay their district attorneys more money.
"It's a challenge for rural areas to retain experienced prosecutors," said CDA Executive Director Peter Weir.
"The counties recognize the importance of DAs, but they only have so much money," he said.
In fact, McLimans had planned to hire two investigators for his office, but says he is willing to sacrifice one of them so he could pay his deputy district attorneys more money.
"We'll rearrange the investigator's job to make it work," McLimans said.
Routt County commissioners said they're willing to approve the prosecutor's raise and budget proposals, but Moffat and Grand counties still have to give their nods of approval.
Bob Semsack, Grand County finance director, was also surprised to see such a salary difference between prosecutors and public defenders.
"It's really something," Semsack said. "That's the first time I've seen the numbers."
Semsack said he's seen the public defenders in action and has been impressed with their skills.
"But I don't think the prosecutors are gun-shy of the public defenders," Semsack said. "The prosecutors are very capable."
Nevertheless, in Colorado, public defenders are funded by the state and have more incentive to stay in their jobs because of a seven-step pay grade that runs from $36,000 to $85,000.
"They're involved in the state system, which builds salaries over the years," McLimans said, adding that the state has a great benefits package, too.
Weir said that Colorado's public defender system gets more respect than some other states where public defenders are hired on a contract basis from an inconsistent pool of attorneys.
"I think it's a credit to the public defenders system here. I've found them to be extremely well qualified," Weir said.
"We're not begrudging the public defenders' salaries, we just need to find alternative funding sources for the prosecutor's office," Weir said.

To reach Frances Hohl call 871-4208.


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