DA defends his budget to Pitkin County | AspenTimes.com

DA defends his budget to Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Pitkin County’s share of the district attorney’s 2011 budget is up 3.2 percent – an increase that had some county commissioners on Tuesday questioning the way the three counties that make up the 9th Judicial District are assessed their share of funding. And, one commissioner called on District Attorney Martin Beeson to cut his budget.

The 9th Judicial District includes Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. Total operations in 2011 are budgeted at $3.2 million.

The budget freezes salaries for a second straight year, though Beeson will receive a $10,000 pay hike as part of a state-mandated increase for district attorneys. The office will downgrade its health insurance plan in midyear 2011, in effect reducing compensation to employees, Beeson said.

The contribution to the budget from the three counties totals about $3 million, up nearly 0.4 percent from 2010. The sum includes $618,876 from Pitkin, $2.2 million from Garfield and $237,139 from Rio Blanco. Though Pitkin County’s share is up 3.2 percent, the county paid $50,000 less than it should have in 2010 because of a miscalculation, Beeson said. The office cut spending to make up for that shortfall. In the 2011 budget, Garfield’s share drops 1 percent, and Rio Blanco’s share decreases 2.2 percent.

The counties contribute based on their population, under state statute. That means Pitkin County’s share next year will be 21.4 percent. Garfield County will pay 70.4 percent of the budget, and Rio Blanco will pay 8.2 percent. In terms of caseload, however, Pitkin County has been responsible for about 12 percent, Rio Blanco produces about 20 percent of the cases filed, and Garfield County produces about 66 percent.

“We’ve had discussions before about this imbalance,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. “It disappoints me that your hands are tied, because it’s patently unfair.”

Recommended Stories For You

“I understand your frustration,” Beeson said.

Owsley vowed to pursue a change to the way the state dictates judicial district funding during the upcoming session of the Colorado Legislature.

He also urged commissioners to reject the DA’s budget because it does not cut spending for Pitkin County by 5 percent – something the county asked of all its departments, including the DA’s office.

“I think you have an obligation to meet that request,” Owsley said.

Cutting 5 percent from Pitkin County’s share would mean cutting 5 percent of the funding share from each of the other two counties, as well, Beeson said.

“If I have to do it for Garfield County, my office cannot do what it needs to do,” he said. “As politely and diplomatically as I can say ‘no,’ that’s what I’m telling you.”

With Commissioner Jack Hatfield absent, Owsley’s fellow commissioners did not appear ready to force Beeson to cut his budget.

The county itself didn’t meet its 5 percent budget reduction target, Commissioner Rachel Richards reminded her colleagues, and commissioners have already agreed to add expenses into the budget that was initially proposed.

Tying Pitkin County’s funding share to the caseload it produces could have unintended consequences, she added.

“Criminal statistics are a moving target,” agreed Jeff Cheney, assistant district attorney.

Beeson said he did not have statistics regarding how many cases in each county go to trial, but only on the number of cases that are filed.

“I can tell you this: Rio Blanco does not try as many cases as Garfield or Pitkin. There have been some substantial trials in Pitkin County in the past year,” he said.

The DA’s office is bracing for a large expense next year that could bring Beeson back before commissioners to seek additional money.

The office is seeking the extradition of a man from Great Britain in a murder case that dates back to 1997. The case will involve flying witnesses to the states and providing them with accommodations if it goes to trial, according to Beeson. The case originated in Mesa County, but remains of the victim’s body were found in Garfield County in 2004.

“Whatever it costs to bring justice … that’s what we will do,” Beeson said.

On the subject of the prosecutor’s philosophy in filing criminal charges, Richards noted a perception among some in the community that the DA’s office seems to “overcharge” individuals, perhaps with the aim of reducing charges through a plea bargain.

That’s not the case, Beeson said. Charges are filed based on the evidence, facts and the law, and when the prosecutor’s office believes it has a reasonable chance to prevail at trial.

Cases that don’t get publicity, he said, include those in which the DA files lesser charges than the arresting agency anticipated and cases in which the office decides not to file charges at all.

janet@aspentimes.com