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CA: Slice In Funding To Affect Community

A proposed budget cut of $80,000 to the county commonwealth’s attorney’s office will affect the operating efficiency of the office and ultimately leave the rights of the citizens unrepresented, Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Kimberley Slayton White said in a letter to the editor today found on page B5.

White directed her comments to budget cuts proposed by the supervisors’ finance committee and asked citizens to contact their supervisors urging them to make public safety and law enforcement a priority by fully funding the commonwealth’s attorney’s office budget.

“Citizens who are alarmed by the proposed budget action of the board of supervisors should contact members of the board as soon as possible as it is expected that the board will pass a budget very soon,” White said in her letter.

The prosecutor said no supervisors or member of the county administration has spoken with her concerning the $79,782 proposed to be axed from her budget in the coming year.

The cut includes a $48,193 reduction from the compensation board, a $21,398 cut in aid to localities state funding, and an $8,000 recommended added reduction by the county finance committee.

Last year the commonwealth’s attorney’s office budget totaled $629,675 compared to the recommended FY2011 budget of $549,893.

“Although I never was told of the amount of the proposed budget cut of approximately $80,000 by any member of the board of supervisors or any member of the county administration prior to my reading about it in the newspaper, I have confirmed that not only is the board seeking to reduce my office budget by the amount of the state cuts, but also cutting the local funds to my office,” she said.

White added that her contacts with prosecutor’s offices across the commonwealth have informed her the vast majority of localities are not imposing the state reductions nor additional local cuts “because those jurisdictions consider the law enforcement functions of the commonwealth’s attorney’s offices to be valuable core government services.”

According to the county prosecutor, if the board of supervisors approves a budget cutting her office by $80,000, she will be forced to lay off people, resulting in a reduction of services provided to victims, deputies, officers, troopers, merchants and courts.

In March, White was the only constitutional officer to address the board during a public hearing on the budget.

At that time she outlined the makeup of her staff which includes Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Freshour, four assistant commonwealth’s attorneys and legal assistants.

“For the most part these people have been with the office for a very long time,” she said.

With the exception of two attorneys, one who lives in Mecklenburg County and the other who rents in Halifax County, all are homeowners and taxpayers in the county.
“Many of them were not born or raised here, but they have chosen to make Halifax County their home,” she added.

In March White also told supervisors she had looked at expenses and had come up with $21,000 she proposed to cut from her budget.

The Code of Virginia only requires White’s office to prosecute felony charges, issue conflict of interest opinions and compose initial appellate briefs, “and that’s all the compensation board pays the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to do,” she said.

However, additional roles assumed include prosecuting misdemeanors, training law enforcement, offering advice to law enforcement and responding to magistrates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, conducting community seminars, teaching gang prevention in school and offering courtroom support.

“Because of the experience of, expertise of and number of prosecutors currently in this office, we are able to provide services to the citizens of the county beyond those mandated by Virginia law,” White said.

At the March public hearing, White pointed out the recently implemented upgrades in courthouse security are being paid for by court costs allocated back to the county.
“If you don’t have prosecutors in there on some of these misdemeanors… the chances of your convictions are going to be a lot less,” she continued. “We do a lot more than is required of us, and I think our citizens appreciate that.”

Currently the commonwealth’s attorney’s office continues to prosecute charges other than felonies.

“That most likely will have to stop if our budget is cut. Some of the non-felony charges we prosecute include domestic violence crimes, misdemeanor sex crimes, juvenile misdemeanors, drunk driving charges, marijuana charges, concealed weapon violations, property damage charges, shoplifting charges, bad check charges, assault and battery charges, trespassing charges and hunting, fishing and game regulation violations,” she explained.

“If our prosecutor numbers are reduced such that we only have enough prosecutors and time to dedicate to our state mandated duty of prosecuting felonies, citizens, victims, merchants and officers may have to bring those misdemeanor cases to trial without the assistance of a prosecutor - often with a state or locally compensated defense attorney on the other side, protecting the rights of the defendant. Yet, the proposed budget cut will leave the rights of the citizens unrepresented. A highly likely result will be fewer convictions in these misdemeanors,” she said.

In addition, White pointed out the prosecutor’s office provides advice and guidance to all law enforcement officers investigating crimes in the county.

“On call every day, all day, all year, I and my assistants field phone calls at all hours concerning police conduct, search and seizure issues, elements of crimes and investigation strategy,” she continued.

“I sincerely believe that because of our flexibility and availability for law enforcement inquiries, our victims of crime are better served and protected, citizens are afforded the required protections guaranteed to them under the Constitution, and criminals and their crimes are capably and swiftly investigated and apprehended.
Again, if our prosecutor numbers are reduced, the availability and flexibility we have to offer to law enforcement officers could be greatly impacted,” she said.

If the board of supervisors approves a budget that cuts the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, the county may be left without a specialized drug prosecutor, a position that has been a part of Halifax County for nearly 20 years, White said.

“This specialized prosecutor works hand in hand with members of the drug and gang task force in the detection, investigation and prosecution of the criminals bringing and selling drugs and committing acts of violence in Halifax County. In fact, it was through this office that the very first drug kingpin prosecution in Virginia was secured,” she said.

The prosecutor said she recognizes economic times are tough for everyone and referred to the March public hearing where she met with the board of supervisors and detailed cuts that could be made while still providing services to the citizens.

“That proposal appears to have fallen on deaf ears,” she said.

White added that over the last six fiscal years, her office has been frugal and responsible in using state funds in place of local funds to save the county hundreds of thousands of budgeted dollars.

“Those efforts appear to have fallen on deaf ears,” she said.

She concluded saying, “Unfortunately, the proposed budget cut by the board of supervisors on the office of the commonwealth’s attorney won’t fall on deaf ears. The effects will be heard by victims, merchants, officers and the courts.”

Supervisors must approve the upcoming fiscal year budget by June 30.