District Attorney Frank J. Clark pleaded with Erie County lawmakers Thursday to raise the pay for his prosecutors, explaining that more than a third have quit in the last two years to seek better-paying positions.
At one time, about 10 prosecutors left each year for greener pastures. But in the last two years, he has had to replace 37 of his 82 lawyers, he said.
He estimated that if salaries remain at their current, 2002 levels, another 15 will leave next year.
"We are going to be throwing rookies in against some of the finest defense lawyers in this state, and the results are going to show," he told the legislators who gathered Thursday to examine next year's spending. "It's going to be just a bunch of kids. I'm going to have to burp them before I send them up to the courtroom."
Prosecutors are among the "management confidential" employees who have not received cost-of-living adjustments since the Legislature and County Executive Joel A. Giambra froze their pay at 2002 levels to save money. The appointees still collect so-called longevity raises tied to their years of service.
The freeze hit Clark's department hard. One of every four management-confidential employees in county government works for the district attorney. In recent years, Clark had sought raises for some prosecutors, but now he wants a raise of about 3 percent for all.
He said that with $268,924, he can bring his prosecutors to the pay level they would have earned in 2005 without the freeze. His department's total budget for next year then would rise to $8.45 million.
The district attorney's office accounts for some of the county's biggest paychecks. Clark's salary, set by state law, is $136,700.
First Deputy John DeFranks is paid $133,130, Second Deputy and Executive Assistant Yvonne Vertlieb about $120,000 and those with the title of deputy district attorney about $107,000. The county executive, by comparison, receives $103,400, while the sheriff gets about $80,000.
But prosecutors start at $46,000 a year, less than a Buffalo police officer or a state trooper, jobs that don't require the same level of education, Clark said. He has gone so deeply into the list of applicants he can't find an attorney who has passed the bar exam; they are awaiting their scores, he said.
Giambra, who will leave office at the end of this year, proposed spending $1.45 billion to run county government next year, with no across-the-board increase in property taxes. At the same time, the budget contains no cost-of-living raises because no county union has an active contract. Christopher C. Collins will take over negotiations after succeeding Giambra as county executive.
Lawmakers started their budget review Thursday by hearing that many departments would like more money for the coming year.
Lawmakers gave them sympathetic ears. And no promises.
"I value the attorneys that work for Erie County," Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, a Buffalo Democrat who also is a Buffalo police officer, told Clark. "It's a financial struggle, not just in your department, but in all departments."