A looming dispute between District Attorney Josh Marquis and Clatsop County officials took an unusual turn Monday when the county budget committee effectively cut his pay.
The committee voted to eliminate the $13,500 stipend the county adds to the district attorney's state salary. The vote came after the panel supported two positions that had been considered for elimination from Marquis' office.
The move came as a shock to Marquis, who called it a "personal insult."
"I can only take this as a sign of extreme disrespect of my office; it's spitting in my face," he said after the committee meeting.
County Commissioner Jeff Hazen, who proposed the cut, said it had nothing to do with any displeasure with Marquis. Hazen said he's long questioned the county's practice of supplementing the district attorney's salary, even before he was elected to the board of commissioners last year.
"I feel this is another unfunded mandate from the state," he said.
The budget committee, made up of the five county commissioners and five citizen members, voted 7-2, with one of the citizen members absent, to cut Marquis' stipend. Commission Chairman Richard Lee and Commissioner Sam Patrick voted no.
The budget committee's vote amounts to a recommendation to the board of commissioners. But with three of the five commissioners - Hazen, Patricia Roberts and Ann Samuelson - supporting the cut, it will likely be approved when the board formally adopts the 2007-08 county budget next month.
The county stipend supplements Marquis' state salary, which is currently $79,512. The stipend is $13,500 this year and was recommended to increase to $13,900 next budget year.
Marquis said he had no warning that the stipend might be on the chopping block at Monday's budget committee meeting, which had appeared to be shaping up into a showdown over two new positions in the district attorney's office.
Marquis came to Monday's meeting armed with data supporting the continued funding of two new positions, which were added to his office just last year. The two personnel, a deputy prosecutor and assistant, were included in the proposed 2007-08 budget document, but with no recommendation from County Manager Scott Derickson whether the budget committee retain them or not.
The committee voted to approve the two positions, but with the warning that they could be cut later if the county is forced to reduce spending in future years because of revenue shortfalls.
After that vote, the committee turned to the district attorney's stipend, a separate line-item in the budget. Hazen expressed his displeasure with the practice, but the panel appeared to be moving on to the next item when Hazen said he wanted to introduce a motion reducing the supplement to zero.
Hazen said he recognized that district attorneys' salaries around the state have been stagnant and supported efforts to get the state to increase them. But he said it was not the county's place to use its own resources to make up for the state's shortfalls.
"It bothers me that the county is subsidizing a state-operated office," he said. "Where does it end?"
After the vote, former budget committee member Burr Allegaert asked the panel to reconsider.
"Over the six years I was on the budget committee, we were all disappointed that the state was not coming up with more money in compensation for the district attorneys," he said. "However, we didn't have the idea that just because we had a philosophical difference over the salary issue, that we would make such a draconian cut."
Marquis, who was re-elected last year to a fourth four-year term as district attorney, said he has no plans not to serve his complete term, but said the loss of his stipend amounts to a 15-percent pay cut that will mean "a significant lifestyle change for me."
The county first added a stipend - of $9,000 - to Marquis' state salary in his second year in office in 1995.
With the exception of the state's three smallest counties, district attorneys in Oregon counties with less than 100,000 population all make the same $79,512 state salary. Of those 24 counties, 12 provide a stipend that averages $14,321.
Statewide, district attorneys have only received cost-of-living adjustments to their state salaries, Marquis said. "In real dollars, I make the same as I did in 1994."
Without his stipend, Marquis said he will make less money than two of his deputy prosecutors.
Marquis said he doesn't believe Hazen's claim that the move isn't directed at him. "This is a way of expressing disrespect and contempt for me," he said.
Earlier this month, County Manager Derickson, at the request of budget committee member Dan Bartlett, drew up a memo with data on the salaries of district attorneys around the state and the pay for other Clatsop County officials, as well as past legal opinions from county counsel Heather Reynolds on the district attorney's duties.
Marquis handles the handful of mental commitment cases that come to the county each year, but it was never in exchange for his stipend, he said; he agreed to handle the cases when the county added another deputy prosecutor to his office several years ago.
It was the two new staff positions, not the stipend, that was expected to generate the most debate over the district attorney's budget Monday. Marquis and Derickson had each presented data giving different pictures of the workload of the district attorney's office.
Statistics presented by the county manager's office, which were originally requested by Hazen and Lee, appeared to show the caseload of the district attorney's office remaining constant over the past several years. Marquis argued Monday that those statistics, prepared by the state District Attorney Case Management, were flawed and didn't give an accurate picture of his office's true workload.
The two positions were added last year because of the increased work Marquis said his office would face with the addition of the third full-time circuit court, which opened early this year.
The budget committee added the two positions last year, but chose to fund them for one year only from the Special Projects Fund, which holds the county's share of state timber dollars. The committee's vote last year to add the positions came with the direction that the county look for more stable funding for the positions in future years.
The proposed 2007-08 budget included the two positions in the general fund. But Derickson added the warning that with operating costs climbing faster than revenue, coupled with a projected drop in timber revenue over the next few years, maintaining spending in the general fund at its current level could be difficult beyond 2009.