Rockingham County commissioners have voted 2 to 1 to support an immediate 8% pay increase for prosecutors in the county attorney’s office to make the salaries more competitive after losing several to other higher-paying agencies.
This week’s vote followed a salary study by Municipal Resources Inc. that recommended a 5 to 10% pay hike to address growing concerns about retention in the county attorney’s office.
The salary increases will begin Monday and will impact 11 assistant attorneys and three lead attorneys.
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle, who voted against the increase, said the 8% is on top of a 3% raise in the current county budget and another 2% increase that was included in the new proposed budget to be voted on by the delegation in June.
“In an economy where unemployment is the highest we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes, giving a 13% raise over two years is unconscionable. I was voted to represent the taxpayers and I take that responsibility seriously. The world has changed and elected officials need to wake up and pay attention,” he said.
But Commissioner Thomas Tombarello, who is the liaison to the county attorney’s office, insisted that the pay increases are necessary.
“We need professionals to handle those high-end cases. If we don’t have them we’re not doing our job for the taxpayers and the citizens. Without the right people prosecuting those cases we could let the wrong guy or girl out of jail,” he said.
County Attorney Patricia Conway said she approached commissioners months ago about her concerns after losing several experienced attorneys over the past six months.
She said she lost a “core” group of prosecutors who handled some of the more serious cases like sexual abuse and negligent homicide.
“When that occurred it really put us in a tough position,” she said.
One of main reasons why they left was because they were offered better pay by other jurisdictions, she said, adding that the average assistant attorney earns about $65,000 a year.
One prosecutor who was making $67,000 a year in Rockingham County left after being offered $85,000 at another county attorney’s office, she said.
Conway said it’s been a struggle to find experienced prosecutors.
“They wanted more money than I could give them, essentially,” she said.
Conway is also concerned about a hiring freeze that has prevented her from filling three of the vacant positions.
“The reality is if I lost another attorney I just don’t know how we would be able to handle the case load we have,” she said.