Members of the Deschutes County budget committee appeared skeptical Wednesday of District Attorney John Hummel’s request for 11 new positions.
Hummel maintains that the problems outlined in his six-month report released in March cannot be fixed unless his department is allocated $1.6 million for new staff and services.
The consequences of being understaffed includes attorneys being underprepared for trial, a backlog of cases and some victims not being notified of court appearances. The rise in cases has led to an increased workload, which is contributing to a high turnover rate and low morale, Hummel said.
“When you have that turnover, it has an impact on public safety,” Hummel told the committee.
Hummel is requesting four prosecutors, two trial assistants, one victims advocate, one office manager and three other support personnel. He is also requesting about $100,000 for on-call pay for deputies who respond to crime scenes outside of business hours and for an on-call phlebotomist to take blood tests involving people driving under the influence.
But some on the commission questioned the need for so many positions at once.
“You say in your letter you’re understaffed. … This was news to us. Nobody had said anything,” Commissioner Phil Henderson said.
Henderson also questioned the 15% increase in the number of cases referred to the DA’s office between 2017 and 2018. Between 2013 and 2017, a five-year period, the caseload increased about the same percentage.
“What made this such a different year and why?” Henderson said.
Hummel attributes this increase to more police officers on patrol who refer cases. Hummel also argues the request is not that sudden, as the department has come and asked for more staff in years past.
“You’ve never approved the request I’ve made. … It’s been cut, and that grows over time,” Hummel said.
Henderson said he took exception to the idea the budget committee has not supported the office, citing progressive staff increases that have been approved since 2013.
“I just think we need to understand why all of a sudden you need 12. We didn’t hear last year that we were missing five people, eight people,” Henderson said.
Bruce Barrett, the chair of the committee, said while the committee has approved budget increases, they have never done so in full.
“(The staffing issue) has been called to our attention,” he said, noting that if past appeals had been fully funded maybe they “wouldn’t have seen an 18% increase in one year.”
Budget committee member Michael Maier said he supported a well-run district attorney’s office but asked Hummel to prioritize the positions he needed most in the event the committee decides it can’t afford his full request.
Maier said he didn’t feel comfortable choosing which positions should be approved. “You know your operation better than I do.”
Hummel responded, “Then why do you question my argument that I need 11 new positions?”
Hummel doesn’t want to settle for less. He says without all the positions his office can’t prosecute effectively. Without them, he will forgo pursuing certain criminal cases as a way to focus more on murder and other high-profile cases.
The committee will vote to approve the budget at the end of week. It will be open for public comment in June.
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