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City, county continue contract debate

WORTHINGTON -- Increasing crime and the nature of those crimes are two primary reasons to expand the county attorney's office to five full-time lawyers, Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore cites in his request.

That request, and how the department will be financed, continues to be worked out between county commissioners and the City of Worthington.

Since the full-time county attorney's office was established in 2003, the department has provided prosecution services to the city in exchange for the city funding 25 percent of the department. With climbing caseloads and the necessity to hire an outside law firm to help with the work, the county decided it would be best to terminate the prosecution contract with the city. That decision, made in late February, meant the contract would be terminated as of Feb. 28, 2009.

The city, however, doesn't want to see the contract end and has offered to continue funding the department at a rate of 25 percent for up to five full-time attorneys and 4.4 support staff. The office is currently staffed with four full-time attorneys and 3.8 support staff.

While some commissioners questioned the funding formula at a recent county board session, Moore said about 25 percent of the open case files in his office fall under city jurisdiction.

"I don't have a time study on how much is spent on city cases versus county," Moore said, adding that the city caseload (there are more than 500 active cases) takes up about one full-time attorney's time. Staff is, however, cross-trained to work on both city and county files.

"Funding one-quarter of a five-lawyer office would (equal) 1.25 attorneys to do city work," he said. "I think that accurately reflects the office time."

The city caseload consists of cases that originate within the City of Worthington and are classified as gross misdemeanor, petty misdemeanor or property crime such as theft. The county caseload includes all cases outside the City of Worthington -- with the exception of several smaller communities that have a city attorney -- as well as those cases occurring within the city that are classified as felonies and juvenile delinquencies. The county also handles all juvenile and civil commitments.

From 2003 through 2006, the number of county court cases steadily increased, dropping off slightly in 2007. At the same time, juvenile and civil commitment cases have been on the rise.

"The city's cases have been steady from 2003 to 2007," Moore said.

Hiring another full-time attorney, he said, would alleviate the strain on existing employees. He envisions the position would work primarily on the county caseload, leaving him more time to do some of the administrative duties that come along with being an elected, full-time county attorney.

"The board created the full-time office in 2003 to focus on full-time county work," Moore said. That includes meeting with county stakeholders on adult and child protection issues and initiatives such as truancy court. It also means attending Nobles County Board sessions.

"There are a lot more administrative things than the old law office had to worry about," Moore said.

As for expanding the support staff to include another three-fifths position, Moore said the new position would help the department meet its court-ordered requirement to provide transcripts of all audio and video entered as evidence in court proceedings.

Moore said since the court order took effect in 2007, existing staff has had to be complete the extra work. The request came too late for him to budget the additional staff in 2007, and while it is in the budget for 2008, he has not advertised to fill the post because of the ongoing contract negotiations.

Again with a staff of four full-time attorneys -- the fourth attorney began work on Monday -- Moore said finding attorneys to work in county prosecution, especially in a rural area such as Nobles County, is a challenge. If the county and city can work out an agreement that will allow him to hire an additional attorney, it will take time.

"(We're) far enough away from the Twin Cities that it's off the radar," he said, adding that all of the state's law schools are based in the Cities. "The whole focus of legal education is largely relevant to metro cases."

Not only is geography an issue for new grads, but pay is also a factor. When a new associate can get a job in a metro law firm with a starting salary at $100,000 or more, it's more difficult to consider moving to Nobles County, where the starting salary for an assistant attorney is $48,000.

"When people come out of law school with a $100,000 debt, they aren't looking at coming down here," he said.

The key is to promote the rural lifestyle with its less expensive homes and smaller communities.

"We can recruit -- it just takes a little more effort and a desire not to live in the Twin Cities," Moore said. "I think our office allows new lawyers to do meaningful work immediately. That's rewarding and provides us with a recruiting tool I don't think a lot of other firms can offer."

Hiring someone right out of college adds to the demand for Moore's time as he has to train each new assistant.

"You can't just hire a new attorney and set them loose," Moore said. "Part of the issue is spreading the work out, so we have more hands to work on (cases)."

The county's decision on whether to continue the contract with the City of Worthington, as well as to hire a fifth attorney, is anticipated to be made in April, following the city's request that a decision be made within 60 days.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
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