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Pay progression bill could cause prosecutors to cash out

A legislative proposal authorizing county prosecutor raises is aimed at helping local offices retain talent. But some district attorneys argue the plan will leave them shorthanded.

Companion bills in the Senate and Assembly would establish a 17-step, merit-based process for assistant district attorneys to reach top pay.

“The goal with this,” said Michelle Litjens, R-Oshkosh, Assembly Bill 488’s sponsor, “is to have prosecutors look at the job as a career instead of a stepping stone to private practice.”

That has been a constant problem for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who said about 63 percent of the 128 assistant district attorneys in his office have five or fewer years of experience.

Stagnant pay forces many to flee for the more lucrative jobs, he said. Already this year he lost four newer prosecutors to private law firms because the starting salary for assistant prosecutors in Milwaukee is about $50,000. Merit raises have not been given in the county since 2000, Chisholm said.

But he questioned the logic behind the pay progression plan outlined in the bill because it could lead to layoffs in his office.

About one-third of the 128 assistant district attorneys in Milwaukee are paid for through federal grants, and the addition of state-paid merit raises to those salaries will deplete money allocated for increases, Chisholm said.

“We’re bringing in these people on federal grants and giving merit raises across the board,” he said. “That would actually increase the amount the state has to pay, which ironically, could force me to lay a couple people off.”

According to the legislation, each step of the pay progression plan is equal to 1/17th of the difference between the lowest and highest hourly range.

Assistant prosecutors with at least one year of continuous service as of July 1, 2013, would get a pay bump to the level immediately above their current salary. Newer assistant district attorneys would get a raise after serving at least 12 months.

Each July, prosecutors would be eligible for additional raises, at the discretion of their supervisor. Chisholm said that senior prosecutors will likely chew up a disproportionate share of the raises which could also squeeze less-experienced attorneys out of a job.

“It puts me in the bind of saying ‘Yes, I support merit-based pay increases,’” he said. “But it goes right to the heart of that position issue that if you give merit increases, I might actually have to lay people off.”

Pay progression also does not address current prosecutor shortages in offices throughout the state, said Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco, who oversees a staff of eight attorneys.

A 2007 audit by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau revealed a shortage of more than 120 prosecutor positions throughout the state, including five in Sheboygan County.

“Our main concern here,” DeCecco said, “is relief from case loads, not necessarily pay progression.”

But retention of experienced prosecutors is the primary goal of the pay progression bill, said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

A co-sponsor of the proposal, Taylor said raising the salary of working prosecutors, instead of paying to train new ones every few years, is going to help offices run more efficiently.

“I’m not suggesting time is not important on the case, but the issue is, could John (Chisholm) do 15 cases when that new and green person could do one,” she said. “That’s the difference and we’re paying for that.”

Litjens said she didn’t know how much the pay progression plan would cost. It will depend on estimates provided by each district attorney’s office in Wisconsin, she said.

If the proposal passes, she said legislators would look to allow money for raises in the next state budget.

“Can we fund this to the max?” Litjens said. “Probably not, and merit-based pay is not a guaranteed pay increase. But it at least gives prosecutors an opportunity to earn more.”

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