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Budget Shift Approved For County Attorney

By Staff | Jan 27, 2011

Palo Alto County Attorney Lyssa Henderson will be able to make a modification to her office’s budget following action by the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 18. A shift of funding from one salary line in the budget to another line was approved on a trial basis by the board following a discussion with the newly elected attorney.

“I am currently seeking an assistant county attorney,” Henderson told the board, “as former Assistant County Attorney Steve Swanson left before the end of last year.”

According to Henderson, the salary for the position was budgeted at $50,000, but in order to obtain an experienced attorney for the position, a little more salary would be required. “It would be advantageous to the office to be able to bring an experience attorney onboard in the position, rather than having to train someone straight out of law school,” Henderson explained. “They have the book learning, but not the practical experience of actually filing the cases and prosecuting.”

In looking at the budgets of her office, Henderson explained that a budget line for a part-time office position was budgeted at $7,562 and was currently vacant.

“I propose to move $6,550 from that budget line to the assistant county attorney’s salary to make that position $56,550,” Henderson explained. “There would be no actual change to the budget total for the office, and it would allow us to bring an experienced attorney onboard.”

Henderson noted that she has been seeking applicants and that there are two strong candidates for the position, both with significant experience. “This bump to the salary would allow me to hire someone who can hit the ground running, which would increase our office’s productivity,”

“Is an assistant attorney really necessary?” Supervisor Jerry Hofstad asked.

“Yes,” Henderson replied. “I see some areas in the budget where I may be able to cut some expenditures in the future, but I don’t want to do that right now until I see how things work out.”

“Don’t you think it will be harder to get an experienced assistant for that pay?” asked Supervisor Ed Noonan. “There are nurses and teachers making more money a year than that.”

“That’s true,” agreed Supervisor Ron Graettinger, “but it also costs lots more to live in Spencer than it does here, so you have to look at that, too.”

“I think the county’s residents want what is best for the county,” Henderson said. “They want to be able to trust the county attorney and carry the priorities of the county forward are very important.”

It was pointed out that Dickinson County had a full-time county attorney and three part-time assistants, while Clay County has a part time county attorney.

Henderson noted that each of the assistants in Dickinson County receive $45,000 per year in salary and benefits. “You guys asked me to review the need here, and based on the case load, I recommend a full time county attorney,” Henderson said. “That’s based on the number of cases and the types of cases filed locally.

Henderson went into a brief budget discussion with the supervisors for the coming budget year, noting that the county attorney’s office would see an increased asking, due primarily to changes in Iowa Public Employee Retirement system rates and insurance costs, along with a step increase for secretaries, bringing the office budget estimate to $299.680.

Getting back to the salary adjustment, the board offered some final thoughts.

“I’d still like to investigate the possibility of our county attorney’s office going to part-time,” Jerry Hofstad said.

“I know how much work there is in that office,” observed Supervisor Leo Goeders. “Someone with experience will get three times more work done than someone without experience. There’s no change in the money, so I’d give my approval of the move.”

“I agree,” Board Chair Keith Wirtz said.

“I’d say let’s give her a chance to see how things go for the year,” Graettinger said. “I don’t want to see her cut the budget and then we’d have to give it back.”

“The budget has gone from $238,000 to 299,000 in three years,” Hofstad said, “2008 to 2011. It’s something we will need to look at. I don’t want to see it go up that much in the next three years.”

“It went up that much due to case loads, so we were told,” Wirtz pointed out.

“When the economy is bad, filings go up,” Goeders noted.

Henderson agreed with the observation. “In visits with the local Retail Association, I do know that in the past, the county attorney did not prosecute bad checks, and that is something I will be doing.”

“I’d say let’s let her prove her point and go ahead and approve the move of the money,” Wirtz suggested. The board members agreed with the proposal to bring the discussion to a close.

In other business, the supervisors approved the final plat of Five Island Bay, located on the west side of Five Island Lake. In a related action, the board also agreed to accept responsibility for maintenance and upkeep of the road in the subdivision at the point in time when four new homes have been built in the subdivision, based on the high level of construction standards that the road was built to by the developers.