Prosecutors say they'd have to slash staff or shutter offices to comply with Gov. Bevin's 17.4 percent budget cuts

09/15/2017 05:39 PM

FRANKFORT — Local prosecutors bemoaned budget cuts totaling 17.4 percent proposed by Governor Matt Bevin, and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee says he’d like to see them shielded from the looming spending reductions.

Commonwealth’s and county attorneys expressed their frustrations with the proposed cuts during an Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary meeting on Friday.

Bevin’s office has told state agencies to prepare for $350 million in spending reductions — $200 million to close a projected hole in the current fiscal year’s budget and $150 million to invest in the depleted Budget Reserve Trust Fund.

Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron said the spending reductions would cost commonwealth’s attorneys $8.5 million in all, which translates to about $150,000 per office. Cohron said the state’s larger commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices would bear the brunt of most of those cuts.

With most of their budgets driven by personnel costs, Cohron and Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders warned that the cuts would prompt commonwealth’s attorneys to eliminate about half of their staffs or close their doors for extended periods.

Public prosecutors’ salaries are set by state law, meaning they couldn’t accept a voluntary pay cut even if they wanted.

“Realistically what we can do is cut about 43 percent of our staff,” Cohron said, adding that in his experience commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices range from “underfunded” to “extremely underfunded” presently. “These are the individuals that prosecute things such as murder, rape, robbery, child molesters, drug traffickers, so we can that, our staff by 43 percent, which is not doable.”

“The other option we have is March 1 we can close the doors of the commonwealth’s attorney’s office until we start the next fiscal year July 1,” Cohron continued. “… The primary purpose of our government is the protection of its people. We would be failing that protection miserably.”

Christian County Attorney Mike Foster said the cuts would imperil local programs like rocket dockets and cause delays in fine collections and general court proceedings.

Like commonwealth’s attorneys, Foster said county attorneys’ offices face the prospect of cutting about 40 percent of their workforces or closing their doors for nearly five months.

“I’ve done this for almost 40 years now,” Foster said. “We’ve been treading water. It gets a little tiresome sometimes, but there’s a job to do, so at this point in time we’d be remiss if we did not address the impact on the county attorney budget for proposed cuts.

“In summary, a 17.4 percent across-the-board cut for the county attorney budget, in a word, would be devastating, beyond devastating.”

Henderson County Attorney Steven Gold and his counterparts who testified on behalf of commonwealth’s attorneys voiced their support for the crime-victims-rights bill dubbed Marsy’s Law.

But they say without additional funds, prosecutors won’t be able to fully implement the legislation if it clears the General Assembly and is ratified by voters as an amendment to the state’s Constitution.

“Very few county attorneys across the state have victims’ advocates,” Gold said. “There’s just a handful, and those are grant-funded. We cannot implement Marsy’s Law in a meaningful manner for Kentucky crime victims without additional funding for dedicated victims’ advocates in county attorneys’ offices.”

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a strong proponent of Marsy’s Law, but he disagreed with prosecutors who called it an unfunded mandate from the General Assembly if the proposed constitutional amendment becomes law.

Still, Westerfield said he understood the frustrations of commonwealth’s and county attorneys and said he would like to see them, and other entities involved with public safety, exempted from Bevin’s proposed cuts. Bevin has protected the state’s K-12 education funding formula, Medicaid, universities, corrections and debt service from the 17.4 percent spending reductions he’s requested.

“Public defenders are in the same boat, though this wasn’t their day to present to the committee,” said Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville.

“My hope is if these cuts are something that the governor eventually orders that these folks can be spared along with other fundamental governmental services that affect public safety, education. We’ve only got so much money, and if we don’t have what we think we’re going to have, we’re going to have to cut somewhere. I just hope we can spare them as much as possible.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a Video Journalist for Spectrum News and covers Kentucky politics and all the goings-on at the State Capitol. Kevin was born and raised in Frankfort so he grew up around politics and has always had the drive to follow the political process and hold lawmakers accountable. Before joining Spectrum News Kevin covered government and politics for The State Journal in Frankfort. You can watch Kevin’s work weeknights at 7:00 and 11:30 on Pure Politics, available exclusively on Spectrum News, HD Channels 403 and 715. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135.

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