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County attorney: Budgets cuts would 'slow down' work

The Washington County Attorney's office is in the middle of prosecuting a murder case involving a Stillwater stabbing, requiring inordinate staff time and resources and paid experts.

County Attorney Doug Johnson said his lean staff - which processes thousands of criminal and civil case actions a year - cannot handle much more.

"If we get two or three more murder cases, we're just not prepared for it," he warned county commissioners recently. "We're maxed out."

Johnson cautioned that if his office's 2010 budget ends up smaller than now proposed, work will slow, attorney-led training with local police departments will be cut back and the office will give second thought to some types of work it takes on.

Like other county agencies, Johnson's office was hit earlier this year when the county received less state aid than planned. Johnson, however, was more vocal than most department leaders have been in pleading with commissioners to look elsewhere if similar budget cuts are needed in 2010. He appealed to the County Board during an Oct. 27 budget meeting.

"Things are really going to slow down" if further cuts are made, Johnson said later in an interview.

Commissioners said they are sympathetic to Johnson's situation, but cannot promise anything beyond the budget already proposed for his agency.

"Every one of our department heads can make the case," board chair Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove said.

Commissioner Lisa Weik of Woodbury said Johnson made a stronger case for protecting his office budget from further cuts than did other department directors in recent weeks, though they "were all concerned as well."

Weik said she has not talked with other commissioners about whether the attorney's office budget should be treated differently than other department budget if additional spending cuts must be made.

Johnson said he knows his is not the only department feeling the budget pinch, but he also said his staff is nearly overworked.

The office's 20 assistant attorneys - a smaller staff per capita than operate in similar counties - are handling a big caseload, Johnson said. In 2008, the civil division processed over 1,700 child support actions and reviewed 578 county contracts, among other responsibilities.

The office received 1,625 criminal cases last year, taking some action in all but about 300 of them. It charged more than 800 felonies, serious felonies and felony drunken driving cases.

The civil and criminal caseloads have remained steady the past couple of years, Johnson said, but some of the work takes longer.

For instance, he said, the average criminal case now takes 45 days to charge, a full two weeks longer than it did in 2008. That slowdown is the result of budget tightening at the state and county levels and increased workload in other areas of his office. His assistants write more of their own legal briefs for appeals cases, a murder case consumed two attorneys' time and the office does not have money to pay law clerks, who help with criminal cases.

The attorney's office proposes spending $4.68 million in 2010, just about what is being spent in 2009. Johnson said he is not asking the county board for funds beyond what his office has been tentatively budgeted for next year. He said he has made such requests in past years, but commissioners and the county's administration staff made other departments a higher priority.

"Now, when there is no money, I just wasn't going to get in there and beat my head against the wall because it wasn't going to happen," he said.

The county board has few options, Peterson said. A rough economy makes it difficult to raise property taxes to fund county services.

And, she added, until the county is relieved of some unfunded state mandates, "we're in a tight spot."