An Outlier in Southwest Colorado

Attorneys leaving law school probably don’t expect they might have to work side jobs to make ends meet or struggle to pay for expenses like childcare and car repairs. According to think tank Law School Transparency, which studies the economics of law school and the legal profession, the median salary for attorneys in private practice was $117,000 in 2017. 

But Colorado’s entry-level and early-career prosecutors sometimes find themselves in very different financial circumstances, especially in the 6th Judicial District. The squeeze for resources in that district translates to low salaries that make it difficult for the attorneys to afford their law school loan payments and the cost of living in the 6th District’s home base of Durango. 

Funding for the 6th District works the same way as all of Colorado’s other judicial districts, though the math might work differently. Most of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts cover a handful of counties, which provide the lion’s share of funding for DA’s offices. The state sets a mandatory minimum for the elected DAs and pays 80% of his or her salary. Everyone else working in the office is paid at the office’s discretion. 

Skepticism from lawmakers has hampered a group of bills to increase contributions from the state in the past several years. There have been a few attempts to expand a district attorney fellowship program that currently funds the salaries of up to six law graduates to work in rural prosecutors’ offices for a year. Other past bills have sought to use state funds for prosecutors similar to how the public defenders are paid.   

But stripping away the politics and possibilities of what could be done with state funding still leaves a district whose current financial situation mirrors the struggle for resources Colorado’s rural counties often face. Stagnant funding isn’t because of a lack of empathy from county commissioners: All parts of the counties need resources they just don’t have. 

The 6th District’s rank-and-file prosecutors are caught in the middle with salaries among some of the lowest of Colorado’s judicial districts. They have found themselves working side jobs, struggling to pay for housing and childcare and, in one case, homeless. 

According to the 2019 adopted budget for La Plata County, the 6th District’s home base, the county budgeted for 26 full-time attorney and non-attorney positions in the district. 

Prosecutors in the 6th District who spoke to Law Week consistently pointed to their salaries when asked about the most significant factor contributing to their financial stress. According to numbers from a 2017 study conducted by the Office of the State Public Defender tracking salaries for both prosecutors and public defenders, the lowest attorney salary in the 6th District at that time was $51,075. The average salary for an assistant district attorney — the second-highest position in the office (AC) — was $88,443. 

“I just feel like the salaries don’t make sense there,” said a lawyer who worked as a prosecutor in the 6th District for just under two years, who asked Law Week not to print his name. He hedged his thought by saying it’s not meant as a criticism of elected district attorney Christian Champagne as the office’s head. Champagne would be the first to say his district’s salaries don’t line up with the demands of their work.  

The former prosecutor worked as a deputy district attorney in Denver before moving to Durango. In Denver, he spent two years handling misdemeanors and then moved into juvenile prosecution. When he left the 2nd District, he made about $90,000.  

In Durango, he was handling all the domestic violence cases after being on the job for about one month. During his last year in the district, he had a domestic violence murder case, a domestic violence case involving strangulation and a third case of sexual assault on a child. 

By the time he left the 6th District in February this year, his salary was $60,000.  

Sean Murray came to a deputy DA position the 6th District from an assistant DA job in the 22nd District, which is based in Montezuma County. He makes $76,000 now, which he said is comparable to his pay in the 22nd District, taking his bonuses there into account. 

Data from SmartAsset estimates Montezuma County’s housing costs are 18% lower than in La Plata County. 

“People who start brand-spanking new out of law school in JeffCo or Adams County make essentially the same amount of money that I do. It’s weird,” Murray said. He started his law career in 2011 as a public defender.  

Champagne said the low pay has meant high turnover and low interest when the 6th District has an open position. He said he asks entry-level attorneys for a verbal commitment to two years in the office, but not everyone stays that long. 

A career in prosecution is intriguing to recent law school graduates who want trial experience, he said, but they have to decide whether they can afford the cost of living and law school debt. Champagne said his district has occasionally hired mid-career lawyers who want to work in the public sector, whether for the fulfillment of public service or because of disillusionment with BigLaw life, and already have made enough money to afford a pay cut. 

“It’s become the unicorn in the legal profession that we need to find in order to keep these prosecutors’ offices fully staffed,” he said. 

 But even with few applications for open positions, Champagne doesn’t hire any warm body who applies. At a February bill hearing to increase the state’s contributions to district attorney offices, Champagne told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had a vacant position that got one applicant in a period of more than three months. He didn’t hire the applicant because they weren’t right for the job. 

The office’s hunger for qualified attorneys is evident in the former prosecutor Law Week spoke to. He recalled starting work in the 6th District within just a few weeks of exchanging emails with Champagne about that open position. 

Champagne also talked about a mid-career attorney in his office who works two side jobs to make ends meet, one as a long-distance trucker, though that attorney asked not to be named. Champagne told Law Week he doesn’t know of other attorneys in the district who work multiple jobs. 

“That’s just one person’s solution to his issues,” he said. 

Champagne told Law Week if he had the money, he would add an additional investigator in his office. He said the district also has a diversion coordinator whose position is fully state grant-funded, which the district has to re-apply for each year. Champagne said he would need to go to the three counties in the 6th District — La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan — for funding to make it a permanent position.  

“When you’re talking about public safety, you don’t want to be compromising the quality of people who are administering justice,” he said. “It’s crazy that we put them in that position, as a community, as an office. It’s frustrating.” 

County Budget Squeezes 

District attorneys’ offices get most of their budget from the counties they serve. Champagne said he uses the previous year’s budget as a starting point when he negotiates each year’s budget with county commissioners of the district’s three counties.  

The district’s 2017 budget was $2,525,990 according to the Office of the State Public Defender’s data. By contrast, the 18th District and 2nd District had budgets of $23,105,409 and $25,873,259. Three districts have budgets under $1 million.

But it’s difficult to directly compare budgets for Colorado’s different judicial districts against each other. In addition to having varying numbers of attorneys in each position with different salaries, in the wealthier districts in urban areas have extra programs such as specialty courts and diversion programs that also factor into their budgets. There is scarce data to estimate what a prosecution jurisdiction’s budget should be based on, say, its caseloads or how much particular types of cases cost to prosecute. 

Champagne said the district has tried to use its existing resources more efficiently by reorganizing staff duties. The office used to use support staff in a “factory” approach, where one staffer would handle discovery for all the attorneys, another would handle subpoenas, a third data entry. Champagne said the office re-shuffled the roles to look more like legal assistants, with each staff member assigned to handle everything for one attorney instead.  

The increased efficiency allowed Champagne to reassign one staff member to a different department, essentially creating a new position. He said he uses those types of resource allocations as leverage in budget talks with his counties.  

But still, county commissioners can’t hand out money they don’t have. La Plata County has had to stretch resources more and more thinly over the years. Limited real estate and the area’s desirability as a mountain town push up property prices in Durango, the county’s seat. Data from Zillow puts the median home price in Durango, where the 6th District’s office is located, at $429,400 as of Nov. 25 — though that data can change weekly — and the median rent is $1,750. 

But high property values don’t translate into a wealth of property tax revenue for La Plata County’s board of commissioners to work with. The county’s total property tax revenue has fallen from $29.9 million in 2010 to forecasted $15.62 million for this year.  

Julie Westendorff, chair of the county’s board of commissioners, said La Plata County’s shortage of tax revenue is driven by two main factors: a property tax base that’s limited by the Gallagher Amendment, and more bleeding caused by the decline of the area’s natural gas industry. 

“We have not been able to deliver the way we [want] to deliver,” Westendorff said. Talking with her didn’t convey a sense she lacks sympathy for the district attorney’s office — she didn’t once suggest the 6th District should use its existing resources more efficiently — but that falling property tax revenues have squeezed the whole county. 

Regarding natural gas, property tax revenue in La Plata County from oil and gas production accounted for more than half of the county’s total property tax revenue, until 2010 when it reached a high since 2005 of 66%. But tax revenue from the industry tumbled in 2011 to 40%. According to La Plata County’s 2019 adopted budget, oil and gas tax revenue now accounts for 28% of the county’s tax revenue at $4.39 million. 

And as for the other main financial contributor, the Gallagher Amendment in Colorado’s Constitution has also squeezed rural residential property taxes. The assessment rate for non-residential property stays fixed at 29%, so as residential property values have increased, the state has continually adjusted the assessment rate down to keep tax revenue at the 45% cap.  

Chris Stiffler, an economist at the Colorado Fiscal Institute, said residential property made up 53% of overall property value in the state when the Gallagher Amendment passed in the early 1980s. Now it’s about 80%.  

“Gallagher says you have to squeeze that 80% now into only 45% of the property tax,” he said. “We can’t harness the growth in residential value for local governments or schools or county budgets … because Gallagher is a statewide rate that ratchets down the percentage of [a] home that is actually subject to taxes.” 

Areas with growing property values are able to stay ahead of the decrease in the assessment rate, so Colorado’s metropolitan areas like Denver have been able to stay ahead of the Gallagher Amendment’s squeeze. Rural counties haven’t seen the same benefit of frenetic property value growth. 

La Plata County’s budgets give a clue to how the falling residential assessment rate has affected residential property taxes. According to the 2018 budget, the county expected a revenue drop of $505,667 because the 10% growth in property market values from 2017 to 2018 isn’t enough to outpace the drop in assessed values. 

Asked how the county would have to adjust allocations to other departments to, say, give pay raises to prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, Westendorff said it’s a difficult question to answer directly. The county spreads any cost savings across its departments, she said.  

When the county has a vacant position in any of its departments, she said, the position has to remain open for at least 60 days, but the county evaluates whether it can afford to replace the person who left. She said the sheriff and human services departments have taken the biggest staff cuts.

And voters prefer the county continues to cut back. In the November 2018 election, La Plata County voters rejected a measure to increase property and sales taxes the county put on the ballot to fund street projects and a new police station.  

“There’s a limit to what you can do, and I really feel like we are pushing those limits in an unhealthy way for the residents of La Plata County,” Westendorff said. 

Struggles with Cost of Living 

The combination of La Plata County’s financial factors translates into prosecutors being at the wrong ends of the financial scales. The county ranks eighth in cost of living out of Colorado’s 64 counties, according to data from SmartAsset. But the salaries are near the bottom among the state’s 22 judicial districts. 

According to the Office of the State Public Defender’s 2017 study, just three judicial districts — the 3rd, the 12th and the 15th — have minimum salaries lower than the 6th District’s entry-level salary, paying their deputy district attorneys $50,000.

 Those same three districts as well as the 7th and 22nd also have lower average assistant district attorney salaries than the 6th District. Champagne was one of 10 elected district attorneys that year who made the minimum salary for his position of $130,000. 

The counties home to Colorado’s luxury resort towns — think Aspen, Vail and Telluride — as well as Boulder County outpace La Plata County’s cost of living. But the Front Range’s other metropolitan areas cost less than La Plata: El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, has a cost of living 9% lower. Even Denver’s is 4% lower. 

The former prosecutor said he had one apartment in Durango that cost $1,400 per month and his last one there cost $900, about the same as an apartment he had in Denver. 

With his credit card and student loan balances ballooning, by May 2018, his financial situation had deteriorated to the point that he moved into his car. That summer it was manageable, he said, because he’s a runner and spends a lot of time in the outdoors anyway. But the situation got increasingly untenable when the days got shorter and colder. 

He saved money he would otherwise spend on rent, and he said he was able to pay off thousands of credit card debt that way, but homelessness is expensive in its own ways. On the coldest nights, he kept his car running and burned a lot of gas. He would have to buy water at gas stations. He estimated he spent $400 each month putting his dog in day care. And some nights his favorite camp spots would be full, so he’d drive around to find national forest land to park on. 

“You’re burning money, but you’re also burning time and sleep,” he said. 

He left Durango in February for a Denver law firm. He didn’t necessarily have one moment as the tipping point that made him decide his situation was unsustainable.  

“You’re thinking, ‘What am I doing? I went through seven years of school to be a professional and I’m living on the side of a backcountry road with my dog,’” he said. “You’re wondering, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? Is there a greater good?’” 

Murray hasn’t ended up living out of his car, but he struggles financially. When he first reached out to Law Week by email, he said he had 99 cents in his checking account. He has five children, including three stepchildren, and he struggles to afford daycare. 

“I’m very much committed to working in public service because it brings me personal meaning but at the same time, I can see the financial and psychological toll that it is taking on me is severe,” he wrote, “And I’m not sure I would recommend rural public service to people interested in going into the legal field unless they are coming out of law school with little to no debt.” 

Asked whether he wants to return to the public sector someday, the former prosecutor said prosecution is a rare job that makes him feel like he’s going to work each day to do the right thing. He also wants to be a judge someday.

“It’s not that I’m not doing the right thing now that I’m in civil defense, but it just gets so convoluted. We’re fighting over money,” he said. “The downside to the public sector is the trauma you put yourself through. That’s one of my hesitancies: Do I want to do that to myself again? I guess I’d have to cross that bridge when I got there.”

No Reliable Debt Safety Net 

Law school debt loads that commonly reach six figures undoubtedly affect the standard of living graduates can afford. 

The former prosecutor said he graduated law school with $137,000 in debt, which has ballooned to more than $200,000 with interest. He recalled his monthly payment on his income-based repayment plan is $460, which he said is “nowhere near what it should be when you’re trying to pay off a $200,000 loan.” 

He said he’s trying to pay off as much extra as he can before his monthly payment goes up based on his new higher income when he submits his next tax return. 

In 2018, law students borrowed on average $115,481 to pay for school, not including interest, according to NerdWallet. But the median salary in 2017 was just $50,000 for public-sector lawyers. And programs created to help public service workers get out from under their student debt loads haven’t proven to be reliable safety nets.  

The woes of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which offers relief to graduates who work in certain public-sector jobs for at least 10 years, have been well documented. Because the program was created in 2007, people first became eligible to apply for forgiveness in 2017. 

About 99% of people are rejected from the program, often told the type of loan they have or the repayment plan they’re on doesn’t qualify after all. According to anecdotes, people have made years of payments and checked in periodically to make sure they are counting toward loan forgiveness when they get the bad news. 

Murray said he’s working toward loan forgiveness under the program. He said when he switched to a Pay As You Earn repayment plan two years ago, he checked with his loan servicer to make sure the payments would still count toward PLSF. He has a $518 monthly payment on $162,000 in law school loans from the University of Virginia. 

His former coworker in the district is less optimistic, though. He said he’s discussed the program with Murray because it was created close to the time they started law school, and he’s skeptical of Murray’s confidence in it. 

“That’s just bad math to say that you’re going to be in the 1%,” said the former prosecutor. 

Then there’s the lesser-known John R. Justice program, created for public defenders and prosecutors, which doesn’t require a minimum number of years working before attorneys can apply but requires a three-year commitment to working in those positions. The program had $9,895,860 in funding in 2010.

The amount fell to $3.5 million in 2012, and now funding hovers around $1.8 million. 

Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said he goes to Washington, D.C., each year to lobby for the funding amount to return to its original level. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for the program, he said, but funding it inevitably falls by the wayside. 

“I can’t point a finger at any person or any party. It just is the lowest of the lowest priorities, it seems, in the budgeting process.” 

The program doles out funds to states based on population. Colorado received $41,634 for 2019, and the state splits its allocation each year equally between prosecutors and public defenders. Raynes is in charge of choosing recipients. 

He estimated the program gets 20 applicants maximum — public defenders and district attorneys combined — in a given year. Last year, four each received money. Raynes said the low amount available hasn’t been much of an incentive to apply. 

Murray said he hadn’t heard of the program. 

“It’s not even a drop in the bucket,” Raynes said. “It’s perspiration in the bucket.” 

—Julia Cardi

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