Budget Crisis Trickles Down to District Attorney Offices

Prosecutors’ offices bracing for budget squeezes from eventual county revenue shortfalls

The coronavirus pandemic’s economic damage means Colorado’s legislature needs to slash billions from its budget, and lawmakers are still hashing out  exact cuts to  parts of the court system funded by the state, such as the judicial branch and public defense.. But counties hold the responsibility for funding other key civil and criminal functions, such as offices  of district attorneys and county attorneys, and funding shortfalls faced by counties will likely trickle down to funding for those offices in one way or another. 

Counties will likely see a delayed onset of the coronavirus’s full impact on budgets because funding comes from from property taxes, which are reassessed every other year. The delay contrasts with the immediate damage done to Colorado’s state and city budgets by drop offs in sales tax revenue. 

Colorado’s judicial districts have a few different makeups, which could influence their ability to absorb the coronavirus’s economic damage. The districts tend to cover one populous county, such as the 2nd District in Denver, or tack a small county onto a more populated one such as the 4th District covering El Paso and Teller Counties, or include up to seven sparsely populatedrural counties. Each county in a district contributes to the DA’s office budget proportionally based on its population.

Dan Hotsenpiller, the 7th Judicial District’s DA, said in an email he expects districts made up of smaller rural counties to feel the local revenue shortfalls differently than populous urban districts. In more urban districts covering one or two counties, he said the DA’s offices can function similar to a county department by sharing some functions such as human resources and information technology. 

He added that because rural judicial districts spread their DA’s office budget over several counties, that reduces the savings for any one county by cutting the district attorney budget.

“I anticipate that, especially for small, rural DA’s Offices, the budget impact will be felt late this year and for the 2021 budget year. We are already planning for some possible cuts and anticipating the best-case scenario is zero increase but no cut,” Hotsenpiller wrote. 

District attorneys Law Week spoke to said staff costs make up more than 90% of their office budgets each year. That means DAs have to turn to reducing staff costs when they have to cut budgets.

“It makes it challenging to find cuts when the demand for criminal justice services does not go down in tandem with the stock market,” Hotsenpiller said.

Dan Rubinstein, DA in the 21st District covering Mesa County, said his office’s employees may  need to take one furlough day each month through the end of 2020, which amounts to a 4.6% pay cut. 

He said Mesa County is legally obligated to provide funding   it approved in the 2020 budget, but Rubinstein is aiming to spend about 7% less than the office’s total adopted budget for the year. He said accounting for money already spent from this year’s budget, that means cutting about $400,000. 

“That’s one thing to find out you have to cut 7% of your budget in January and have the whole year to do it. But we’ve been spending at 100%, so finding out in mid-May we’ve got to come in 7% below really means we’ve got to come in about 12% below our remaining money.”

To officially cut funding, the county would need to reopen its entire budget to reconsider everything it funds, which would take an onerous process.

“They’re just hoping that we’re all good partners right now, recognizing that the money is not coming in [and] we’ve got to be responsible,” Rubinstein said. He added his office has taken other steps to cut staff expenses, such as putting hiring for previously open positions on hold and not sending attorneys to the annual state district attorneys’conference for CLE training. He said that savings may mean employees can take one less furlough day.

In the Denver district attorney’s office, employees will each take eight furlough days before the end of the year. District Attorney Beth McCann knows that’s not a small ask, but said she believes there is relief among her staff that the office hasn’t had to lay anyone off.

“By deciding early, they can take one day a month from now until December, so it’s spread out in their paychecks,” she said. 

For the Denver City Attorney’s Office, spokesperson Ryan Luby confirmed in an email the city’s requirement for some employees to take eight furlough days includes the City Attorney’s Office .

The CARES Act stimulus package included some direct relief funding for local governments, but only went to counties with populations greater than 500,000. The Fort Morgan Times reported in April that excluded all but 5 of Colorado’s counties. Most of Colorado’s congressional delegates, including both senators, signed onto a letter requesting an expansion of the legislation’s definition of local government to cover smaller counties.

“You either have half a million in population and you get $150 million, or you don’t and you get nothing,” Rubinstein said. “Those were the only two options.”

McCann said she doesn’t know details yet about how Denver will dole out its portion of the aid, but she said she will definitely ask for a piece of it for her office if the opportunity comes. 

Gov. Jared Polis has allocated $275 million of CARES Act federal relief to the state to counties that did not receive direct funding from the legislation. 

But according to Gini Pingenot, the legislative director for Colorado Counties, Inc., federal aid is an imperfect solution because it’s earmarked for local government expenses related to the COVID-19 crisis and can’t be used for revenue replacement.

“We can’t use it to fill a hole of something we had budgeted for that didn’t pan out because we lost revenue,” she said. “It’s in every aspect of the counties’ job that they’re going to see impacts.” 

McCann said the state budget shortfall could make state grant-funded diversion programs in the Denver DA’s office vulnerable to cuts. 

The office’s juvenile diversion program is funded in-house, but she said money for the adult diversion program comes from the state’s marijuana cash fund and the judicial branch. 

McCann added the office has applied for money for its diversion programs from Caring 4 Denver, a 0.25% city sales tax increase approved in 2018  intended to fund mental health and substance abuse treatment,  including in its intersection with the criminal justice system. 

She said she knows the 2nd Judicial District is lucky to have Caring 4 Denver as a potential funding source, since rural jurisdictions tend to rely even more heavily on state grant funding for their diversion programs. 

The 20th Judicial District covering Boulder County isn’t facing furloughs or layoffs for 2020, according to DA Michael Dougherty, but he said as the full economic fallout of the coronavirus unfolds for counties in the next few years, he’ll fight “tooth and nail” to minimize the impact on his staff. 

Dougherty said he’s worried about the implications of cuts to training budgets for district attorney offices, since the state funds that piece of prosecution. Dougherty said training matters because of the responsibility prosecutors hold, given the power they have over people that come through the court system. 

“If you ask anybody, just the average person, what are you concerned about when it comes to prosecutors? The response is going to be that they’re doing the right thing,” he said. 

“And part of that is not just having the best intentions, it’s having the best training.” 

—Julia Cardi

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