The pending resignation of Hughes County State's Attorney Wendy Kloeppner provides yet another example of the struggles county governments are facing.
Kloeppner has been offered the state's attorney job in Lake County. The job there pays close to $15,000 more than the position in Hughes County. According to the state's Unified Judicial System, the Lake County job also comes with about a quarter of the felony caseload. It's not hard to understand why the job in Lake County might be pretty attractive.
We all should wish Kloeppner well in her new position. She's done a great job as Hughes County's chief prosecutor. She'll do a great job in Lake County, too.
Still, Kloeppner's resignation will present a bit of a problem. It could be tough to find a replacement. Hughes County currently pays its state's attorney less than other eastern South Dakota counties with comparable populations and less work for prosecutors. Yankton County actually pays its prosecutor a bit more than $67,000 a year to work part-time, for example.
Data held by the Unified Judicial system show that Hughes County filed 393 felony cases between July 2015 and June 2016. This doesn't count cases filed earlier but that are still pending during the year in question. In simple terms, there's a lot of work to be done.
In fact, national recommendations for criminal defense attorney caseloads max out at about 150 felony cases or about 400 misdemeanor cases per year. There doesn't appear to be a similar recommendation for prosecutors but a prosecutor's workload isn't any easier than a defense attorney's. It should be harder.
Hughes County does have an assistant state's attorney. The position tends to handle misdemeanors and criminal cases involving juveniles, though.
Criminal prosecution is the biggest part of a state's attorney's job but it isn't the only part. They also are asked to provide county commissions, other elected offices and county government departments with legal advice when needed. That's a big job in and of itself.
What all this boils down to is that the residents of Hughes County ask a heck of a lot from our chief prosecutor and can't pay enough. Based on the fiscal year 2016 SDUJS' filings report, Hughes County filed the fourth highest number of new felony cases of any county in the state at 393. Minnehaha with 3,099 new filings, Pennington with 2,070 and Coddington with 612 were the top three counties for new felony filings.
Just by way of comparison, Lake County, which likely will be paying Kloeppner $99,650.64, filed a total of 113 new felony cases in FY16. There were quite a bit fewer misdemeanor cases filed, too. That's important because there's no deputy in Lake County to handle misdemeanors. The Hughes County Commission had been set to raise the state's attorney salary to around $83,970 next year. For the record, that's a difference of about $15,680.
That Hughes County can't pay its prosecutor a wage that is commensurate with the work she is asked to complete, isn't the county's fault. A county government's budget is almost entirely made up of mandates created by state government. Those mandates include road maintenance, indigent health care and the jail, in addition to criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature has put strict limits on the growth of any given county's main source of revenue — property taxes. Over the last decade or so, property tax revenue just hasn't kept pace with county expenses because it's limited by growth and to the consumer price index or 3 percent, whichever is lower.
Low taxes are great. No one wants to pay more than is required of them. Anyone who says otherwise is blowing smoke. That being said, the time is fast approaching when we're going to have to pay more just to maintain the current level of service.
Hopefully, the Hughes County Commission is able to fill the state's attorney position quickly and without having to blow their budget. If they can't, well that's a bridge we'll need to cross. Provided it's in good repair, which is doubtful given the state of county road funding these days.