A relatively small cut to Milwaukee’s court budget could significantly affect how some county attorneys spend money on job training.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s 2012 budget proposal calls for the elimination of almost $60,000 used to reimburse members of the Association of Milwaukee County Attorneys for their State Bar of Wisconsin dues and Continuing Legal Education costs.
The proposed cut coincides with the Dec. 31 expiration of the association’s collective bargaining agreement with the county.
Amy Wochos, the county’s Probate Division administrator, said the reimbursements motivate her to seek additional opportunities for professional growth. The county covers her $224 in annual bar dues, $243 in court assessments and the cost of CLE courses, which range from $95 per program to the Ultimate Pass offered by the bar for $699.
Wisconsin attorneys need to take and report 30 CLE credits every two calendar years.
Wochos said those reimbursements let her remain active in such voluntary organizations as the Milwaukee Bar Association, with a $200 annual membership; the Association for Women Lawyers, which is $60 annually; and the American Bar Association, which costs $225 annually.
“Some choices will be made,” Wochos said, “between having to pay mandatory dues or getting some other education that might improve the services we provide.”
The reduction would affect about 100 attorneys employed by the county, including court commissioners, corporation counsel and child support enforcement lawyers, said John Barrett, clerk of courts.
“Their concern is that a law license is really necessary to their employment,” he said. “I think they could begrudgingly take the loss of the CLEs, but their bar dues is something the county should pay.”
That’s not necessarily true, said Jeff Bentoff, Abele’s deputy chief of staff. The reimbursements are a luxury, he said, the county can no longer afford in the face of a $55 million budget deficit.
“The county executive is looking for savings anywhere he can,” Bentoff said. “The fact that the state doesn’t pay these dues either is another factor in removing them from the county budget.”
State employees such as judges, public defenders and most state prosecutors all pay bar dues and court assessments out of their own pockets.
Bentoff said no other Milwaukee County department pays annual dues or educational costs for employees.
The element of equality the proposed budget cuts present isn’t lost on Laura Gramling Perez, Milwaukee County Court commissioner.
“We do have to consider that other public or quasi-public employees wind up paying for their own dues and CLE,” Perez said. “I think if something is important enough, we will find the extra $80 in the family budget to pay annual MBA dues.”
County attorneys also are among some of the highest paid county employees, Barrett said, with salaries starting at about $105,000. He said the attorney’s union agreed to a one-year salary freeze in 2011, and the budget would continue that freeze through 2012.
But Wochos said if the cuts are adopted, she will have to reevaluate how she spends her money on legal education and membership dues beyond the mandatory expenses.
“Can I be a member financially of the MBA, AWL and ABA, all of which I’ve gotten great benefits with and brought back to my job over the years?” Wochos said. “That is something I’ve got to think about.
“That may be an incentive to look for lower cost CLEs that don’t have direct relevance to your practice area, rather than simply making sure you are getting the best education for your job.”