@NCCapitol

Wake DA's office feeling brunt of budget cuts

Posted July 19, 2011 5:07 p.m. EDT
Updated July 19, 2011 8:01 p.m. EDT

— Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says prosecutors in his office are pulling double duty as receptionists because state budget cuts have forced the office to cut several positions.

For the past few months, assistant district attorneys have been adding their names to a weekly sign-up sheet to volunteer for shifts to answer the hundreds of phone calls the office receives each day.

"I have some of the most skilled lawyers in this county who are answering telephones on a daily basis, because somebody has to answer the phones – and we have to share that duty," Willoughby said Tuesday. "We're pinched. Each day, it's robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Over the past 18 months, the district attorney has had to eliminate six positions, including an assistant prosecutor and five legal assistants. Three of those cuts were the result of the state's $19.7 billion budget that went into effect this month.

Now, the office is down to 25 legal assistants and 41 assistant district attorneys who are funded by state funds to handle the approximately 220,000 criminal cases filed in Wake County every year. About 15,000 of those are felonies.

"Oftentimes, we have to bring files up here to (the front desk) to prepare for trial," Assistant District Attorney Becky Holt said. "Tomorrow, I have to go to court and try a case, so it's just a matter of juggling. But there's not a whole lot of options. The phones have got to be answered, and we have to be open for business."

District attorney offices statewide are experiencing similar employee losses.

According to the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, 55 legal assistant positions have been cut across the state, and another 15 weren't filled after employees retired.

Five assistant district attorney jobs weren't filled after people retired, and another three positions are frozen for two years.

Although the budget cuts are hurting many district attorney offices, lawmakers who support the new budget say the cuts had to come from somewhere.

But Gov. Bev Perdue says the cuts are too severe.

"North Carolina needs to find more resources to prop up the court system," she said Tuesday. "The DA's staff is obviously a consequence of a really hard budget that didn't need to happen."

Willoughby says he fears that the current budget crisis could worsen.

"I'm concerned that, given both the budget that got passed this year and what it appears to be the future, it's not going to get any better," he said. "We may have additional cuts in the future. If so, we'll have to cut back the services, and we're struggling to try to avoid that."