County attorney explains
Wednesday, April 24, 2013 7:34 AM
A rural Decorah man who suggested the county consider having a full-time attorney housed at the Winneshiek County Courthouse as a way to save money appeared to have most of his questions answered Monday.
For the second time in a month, Tom Hansen was on the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors' agenda to discuss the position.
"I had some questions for him (part-time Winneshiek County Attorney Andy Van Der Maaten). I'm trying to understand his budget a little better and where the taxpayers' money is going," he told supervisors Monday.
Van Der Maaten, who was not at last month's Board meeting when the topic was brought up, was at Monday's meeting.
The county attorney's salary is $59,436 and Hansen asked him "what do the taxpayers get for their $5,000 a month?"
Van Der Maaten said the county attorney's responsibilities are listed in the Iowa Code and include criminal prosecution, juvenile delinquency and child-in-need-of-assistance issues and legal representation for elected officials.
Hansen asked why the county attorney isn't paid by the hour and Van Der Maaten said by state statute, county attorney salaries are fixed annually by the Board of Supervisors following a recommendation from the county compensation board.
Hansen also questioned the $112,000 budget for four assistant county attorneys.
Van Der Maaten responded that isn't an accurate statement.
"Four assistants are sworn in and two are unpaid," said Van Der Maaten, who is one of the partners at Anderson, Wilmarth, Van Der Maaten, Belay and Fretheim Attorneys in Decorah.
"They (unpaid assistants) are available as backup as needed and not paid by the county," he said.
Van Der Maaten has one paid assistant, Barrett Gipp, who receives 85 percent of his salary and another, Steve Belay, who receives 45 percent. Van Der Maaten said the rest of the figure Hansen was referring to covers the salary of Victim Witness Coordinator Kari Iverson, who is paid $35,000, but is partially funded by a $19,000 grant. She recovers the remainder of her salary by collecting overdue fines and fees, the county attorney said.
"That position has been there for five years. I would hate to see us lose that for any reason. We've had nothing but positive responses from victims and witnesses," Van Der Maaten said of the coordinator.
She also helps with victim-assistance forms and the payment of victim medical bills.
"That position has been very positive ... It's been an important part of our office for the last five years for what can be done to help victims of Winneshiek County," he said.
"It hasn't cost the county for the past three years."
Hansen asked Van Der Maaten how he handles a situation when the county prosecutes a client of his private firm.
The county attorney responded Winneshiek County has been trading cases with Fayette and Allamakee counties when conflicts arise. The county referring the case pays the mileage expenses for the attorney taking the case.
Hansen asked whether the crime has to reach a certain "level" before it's referred to another county attorney's office. Van Der Maaten said if it's a traffic violation a private client pleads guilty to, it's not an issue.
However if one of the firm's clients pleads not guilty, the case is referred to the Fayette or Allamakee county attorney's office.
If Winneshiek County were to have a full-time county attorney, his or her salary would be in the $80,000 to $90,000 range and the county would also need to have a full-time assistant, who would receive 85 percent of the county attorney's salary, Van Der Maaten said.
The county would also have to provide health insurance. Van Der Maaten said he and his two paid assistants do not have their health insurance provided by the county, which saves the county about $24,000 per year.
During the current fiscal year, about $30,000 was returned to the county in fine collections. When collections exceed $50,000, 12 percent of that money is paid into the county attorney's budget and used to pay for equipment needed in the courtroom, Van Der Maaten said. While the county attorney's office is not considered a revenue-generating source, the office has been fortunate to generate some income through the collection of fines, he said.
Van Der Maaten said if the county switched to a full-time county attorney, it would have to provide office space, which is not available at the courthouse.
Other costs would include office equipment, a separate phone system and separate, secure Internet access.
"I was trying to find out if there would be a savings if we'd go to a full-time position," Hansen explained.
Board Chairman John Logsdon said he had similar concerns 11 years ago, but didn't reach a conclusion that it would save the county money to switch.
He said the compensation board compares the Winneshiek County attorney's salary with county attorneys from counties of comparable size, and at the time he was concerned about the expense, he learned the Winneshiek County attorney's salary was below average.
Winneshiek County Treasurer Wayne Walter said he's been involved in similar talks as a member of the Iowa State Association of Counties Board.
"Without question, based on the conversations I've had, the structure Andy has is very effective in prosecuting criminals ... there are counties that have a full-time county attorney, and they are certainly not without some problems," Walter said.
"I recommend the Board resist using that approach," Walter said. "This is the best approach and the best return on our taxpayers' money it can be ... the return we get from our county attorney budget is very, very good."
Supervisor Floyd Ashbacher, former Winneshiek County sheriff, said he worked closely with the county attorney in his prior profession.
"Listening to other counties around, we're pretty fortunate. We had someone who could answer questions when we needed it. It worked well," Ashbacher said.
"They do a lot of after-hours work people don't see, preparing search warrants and providing advice."
Van Der Maaten said he tries to make himself available to law enforcement, including meeting outside his regular office hours with officers who work nights.
"I'm not going to have them meet with me between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., otherwise the county has to pay them overtime to come in and talk to me," he said.
He said he once prepared a search warrant via his smart phone while on a family vacation at Rocky Mountain National Park because it was a case he needed to deal with.
"We're doing our best to respond to things and make ourselves available and minimize the cost to the taxpayer," Van Der Maaten said.
At the end of his 30-minute session with the supervisors, Hansen thanked Van Der Maaten for his time.
"It's good to see someone asking questions. I love it," Logsdon commented.