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."