Turnover troubles

Low salaries make help hard to keep in District Attorney's Office

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In a community where employee turnover rates can be as high as February snowbanks, the situation in the 14th Judicial District District Attorney's Office is no different.

During the past three months, the district attorney's Office, which serves Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, has lost four of its eight deputy district attorneys.

District Attorney Bonnie Roesink said the high turnover rate in her office is not unlike the kind of turnover you'd see at a Steamboat Springs restaurant or any other business, including other rural district attorney's offices.

"Everyone has turnover - everybody," she said Friday.

Roesink said high rates of employee turnover are common in rural district attorney's offices because most of the attorneys are given entry-level positions right out of law school. Coupled with low pay, attorneys struggle to live in rural areas - especially resort communities such as Steamboat Springs, where the high cost of living and overwhelming student loans makes it difficult to get ahead, she said.

Where have the DAs gone?

District attorneys, even those fresh out of law school, typically can make significantly higher salaries working at larger offices on the Front Range. In rural areas such as the Western Slope, district attorney's offices struggle to offer competitive salaries because their home counties don't have such large tax bases to tap into.

"I don't get applications from top people because they know they can go to the (Denver) metropolitan area and make more money," Roesink said. "It takes a very special person to do this job. You can't care about money. You have to want to do this job because you want to do the right thing."

A starting prosecutor in the 14th Judicial District makes about $44,000 a year, Roesink said.

The 14th Judicial District serves more than 27,000 people and covers hundreds of square miles, meaning attorneys often are overwhelmed with heavy caseloads.

The Steamboat Springs District Attorney's Office is fully staffed with Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James and deputy district attorneys Jay Cranmer and Andy Heyl handling cases. Grand County is down one position, so Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Edwards works six days a week to handle nearly all of the county's cases. Roesink and attorneys from Steamboat have been filling in periodically.

There are three attorneys in the Craig office - Roesink and newly hired deputy district attorneys Russell Wasley and Ed Vonada.

Roesink expressed confidence that with a strong candidate pool, she'll have her district fully staffed within two weeks.

"I'm looking for what I call 'fire in the belly.' I'm looking for attorneys who aren't afraid to go trial and who really want to represent the victim. This isn't an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., get-your-paycheck kind of job. I want my attorneys willing to get out there for the victim," she said.

Roesink also is in the process of meeting with county commissioners to approve the creation of a third deputy district attorney position in Grand County.

Across the board

Most district attorneys in rural districts say that what the 14th Judicial District is experiencing is completely normal.

Craig Westberg, the Sixth Judicial District District Attorney, said he simply cannot pay his employees what they're worth.

"It's a very, very high-pressure environment in which these entry-level attorneys work. They're not prepared for it. They take a beating day after day after day," he said. "You have to be tough to take that kind of abuse."

The Sixth Judicial District serves La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties in Southern Colorado, which have a combined population of about 60,000 people.

Westberg said evaluating employee turnover can be difficult because people typically leave their prosecuting positions for a variety of reasons.

"Some of it could come down to management style or personality conflicts, but by and large you're going to see employees leave because they got better offers elsewhere, regardless of if they love where they live and work," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'Geez, I love my job, but Craig, I can't eat the pinecones.'"

Westberg said his office usually experiences a 33 percent turnover rate for entry positions. However, his office hasn't lost someone for about six months.

"Going six months without losing someone is a hell of a good run," he said.

District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who prosecuted the Kobe Bryant case in 2004, serves the Fifth Judicial District representing Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties.

Hurlbert said he has been fortunate to lose only three attorneys in two years. One left because she became a judge.

"It's pretty fair to say you'll have some stretches of consistent employment and then see a lot of turnover all of a sudden," he said.

Hulbert emphasized the money problem.

"It's a struggle every year to go to our county commissioners to ask for more money. Even though we successfully raised our salaries by about $10,000 a year, we're still well behind what prosecuting attorneys can make on the Front Range," he said.

Taking it to the state

Dave Thomas, director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council, said that in 2007 the state Legislature will act on a bill that would allocate state funding to supplement rural county budgets, enabling rural counties to offer competitive salaries to district attorneys.

Thomas, who has spent the past four months covering for the Third Judicial District's District Attorney's Office, said he has become too familiar with what it's like to work in a rural office.

"Rural DA offices are staffed so that everybody in the office is virtually in court all the time. It's so hard to cover all the cases," he said.

Although it may be challenging to manage an ever-growing caseload, the real problem is trying to find an attorney willing to work for $40,000 a year, he said.

"It's a serious, serious problem because attorneys in larger offices make on average $10,000 more than in rural areas, and attorneys in the private sector make $40,000 to $50,000 more than that," he said. "The workload in these rural offices is immense, and yet these are the lowest paid DAs in the state."

District Attorneys make between $67,000 and $150,000 a year, he said.

Thomas is hopeful the state Legislature will pass the bills that would give more funding to rural district attorney's offices as well as distributing about $1 million to help supplement prosecutor incomes.

"It's simply not fair that a state public defender can make around $100,000 while some of our DAs are working for $67,000, the state minimum," he said. "It strikes me as being very unfair."

Thomas is working on modeling the bill to increase the minimum salary for district attorneys to comparable to that of a judge because the employment qualifications and workloads are very similar.

But will the bill pass?

"Honestly, I don't know," Thomas said. "Anytime you ask for money, it's difficult. I'm hoping the state values public safety and will see the value in these initiatives."

Comments

bolter 7 years, 5 months ago

Money isn't the problem. The vacancies are in Craig and HSS. You can't live in Craig or Hot Sulphur Springs on $44K/yr?

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steamboatcrazy 7 years, 5 months ago

Part of the problem in the 14th is St-James and the DA. St-James is a tyrant and the DA is a very poor leader. St James stays because he could'nt make it in anywhere else. We need a DA with some balls (no pun intended) that will manage there office and there people.

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exresident 7 years, 5 months ago

I have personally worked for both Kerry St. James and Bonnie Roesink. I can tell you from first hand experience that the problem is not Mr. St. James. The problem is a very large one at that-Mrs. Roesink. It is not just a matter of pay and benefits in the office, in fact it is poor leadership and management of the employees that she displays towards her work force. When Bonnie was first appointed to the office of DA, she was given a large bone and has since run with it. She has let the power go to her head, to say the least. Bonnie came into the office and tried to undo everything that Paul McLimans had put in place-the DA's office was a well-oiled machine, and Bonnie came in and completely undid everything that had worked in years prior. Bonnie only has one interest in mind, and that is hers. She does not work "with" her employees to make a better environment for them. For example, when she was first appointed, she thought better use of her time would be spent painting and redecorating offices in Craig and Hot Sulpher Springs, rather than working out issues that her employees had. I happen to know that one employee had concerns in one of the offices, and Bonnie ignored those while she was busy with interior decoration.

Everyone gets to vote, and the DA is an elected office. She needs to go. As far as Kerry St. James goes, he does the best with what he has, and the best is Mrs. Bonnie Roesink as a boss.

Having said all that, the residents of the 14th Judicial District need to be thankful that there is someone there to actually prosecute crimes (I am directing this comment at the Routt County, in particular). I am now living in a jurisdiction where it is okay to beat your wife and sexually assault strangers; in fact it is not only okay, but considering the lack of prosecution in those areas, it is even encouraged. Be thankful for what you have-it could be worse.

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coach 7 years, 5 months ago

As a former prosecutor in Steamboat, I can say the problem is both money and the current DA. We don't earn enough as Deputy DA's to pay our student loans after law school, and as long as the residents of the district won't pay decent wages-well, you get what you pay for. And DA Roesink sold us out. Nice woman, inexperienced attorney and even more inexperienced manager. As soon as Roesink came into the job, she made it clear that she was going to support the defense bar and not her employees if the going got tough. I guess it was a political decision to try and suck up and get votes. I know a number of us left early on after her appointment because of the clear message Roesink sent that we were on our own out there and she would not have our backs when we made the tough calls. I would have thought that when the whiners in the defense bar did not like us, but the judges and experienced defense attorneys thought we were fair, that meant we were probably right on. As for Kerry St James, Steamboat should thank its lucky stars that they have a prosecutor as experienced as Kerry St James in such a small town that they can get away with paying so little. And if at times he gets a little overzealous, well, that is when a good DA should step in and make the call to balance it all out. Good luck Steamboat. I heard Roesink is getting better, and you still have at least one experienced Assistant who can handle the big (read murder) cases. Life up here in Canada is great, miss the skiing, miss working with St James and the other good, underpaid folks in law enforcement in SS. Cheers.

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