Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on funding issues for Baldwin County’s law enforcement and judicial agencies.
With the state legislature now back in session, talks about new revenue sources and budget changes are running rampant.
But, when it comes to funding for key elements of Baldwin County’s judicial and law enforcement systems, how do our law enforcement and judicial officials feel about the funding?
In this three-part series, The Baldwin Times talks to the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and Baldwin County court system about the funding, or lack thereof, received from the state and what concerns they have moving into this new legislative session.
Baldwin County District Attorney Bob Wilters said funding issues for the district attorney’s office are nothing new.
“There’s been a considerable amount of money cut over the last few years,” Wilters said. “We’ve seen a 51 percent reduction in funding from the state since 2008.”
The decrease in state funding is only compounded by a loss of revenue from traditional revenue streams that have been used to fund the district attorney’s office.
“One problem that I have is that the income coming from the income streams I have, continued with court costs continuing to go down, is certainly affecting things,” Wilters said during a Baldwin County Commission budget hearing in 2018. “Worthless check collections continue to go down, restitution recovery is still going down. And we’ve probably maxed out the pre-trial intervention income stream because if we do any more with that, it becomes a question of are we selling justice for money. We can’t do that.”
Wilters said continued drops in court costs have also been a factor in budget declines.
“We’ve had outside groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Appleseed Project and others that have been pursuing legal action against our municipal courts and municipalities over trying to collect court costs that have been given to people, and that’s also affected our budgets since we get portions of those costs,” Wilters said.
One of the major issues Wilters’ office faces because of budget cuts has been difficulty acquiring new attorneys when positions need to be filled.
“When we’re trying to hire new attorneys, we’re seeing that we’re not always able to offer the kinds of salaries we need to in order to attract top-tier candidates,” Wilters said. “There have been times where we’ve been outbid by other counties because they’re able to offer tens of thousands more to potential candidates than we are. I’ve got to have a permanent consistent funding source that I can count on so I can go out and hire good talent.”
Wilters said another example of salary issues faced by the district attorney’s office involved indigent defense funding.
“It’s problematic when the state is paying upwards of $50,000 for these indigent defense contracts with attorneys for part-time defense work, and those attorneys are sometimes making more money than what I’m able to pay my assistant district attorneys for their full-time work,” Wilters said.
Another issue Wilters faces is an aging fleet of vehicles used by his office.
“We’re spending quite an amount of money just maintaining the vehicles in our fleet,” Wilters said.
The lack of funding could also have a real impact on the district attorney’s office to try cases to the best of its abilities.
“If my office has a capital murder case where we have to bring in expert witnesses to testify, that’s going to cost additional monies,” Wilters said. “We try to prepare for eventualities like that, but with our budget continuing to fluctuate, it makes that kind of planning difficult to do.”
Wilters’ budget has been bolstered for several years by help from the Baldwin County Commission, which has allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to address the needs caused by state cutbacks. The reallocation of the penny sales tax approved by the commission in 2017 allows for additional $300,000 in funding for the district attorney’s office annually, but shortfalls still remain.
“What the county has done has helped - it’s helped a lot,” Wilters said. “But, there’s still more needs that continue to need to be addressed. Baldwin County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, and the workload for this office is going to continue to grow. We’re going to continue to do the best we can with what we have and find ways to make our office work well for the people of Baldwin County.”
With this year’s legislative session gearing up, Wilters said he’ll be looking to see if any further changes will be made to court costs.
“It’s something that’s continued to be talked about, and there will likely be a push for lower court costs that could actually pass,” Wilters said. “But, that could have some dire consequences across the state for funding for not just district attorneys offices, but our courts system and our clerks across the state. If the legislature is going to lower court costs, then they are going to have to find some other continual source of revenue to replace those funds. We can’t keep cutting our justice system and expect to be able to handle the tasks we’re given.”
Next week: We’ll talk with Baldwin County judges about how state funding cuts have affected our court system and what bills they’re looking at in this year’s legislative session.