With the legislative special session well under way, all New Mexicans are watching anxiously as our state representatives and senators sort through the mountains of proposals for balancing the budget in the face of unprecedented revenue shortages.
The governor’s proclamation is tightly worded and outlines very specific objectives, among them the appropriation from the general fund to the Second Judicial District Court for operations during the current fiscal year. The financial crisis facing the court has been well documented in the media, and their concerns are valid. Limiting access to the courts should not be an option, and I applaud the governor for including the court in his list of session priorities.
But others in the public safety sector should not be forgotten. Some legislators have rightly suggested that budget cuts that will force state police to park their cars and reduce patrols are an unacceptable option under any circumstance, and I wholeheartedly agree. The same standard should be applied to prosecutors as well.
As I have publicly highlighted before, 95 percent of our budget goes to personnel services. The individual nature of each case we prosecute requires extensive and individualized attention. Victims and our community at large deserve our best efforts, as justice delayed is not justice at all.
I will not let criminals go free because we have no funds to pursue them, but the current state of the budget causes concern.
Budget cuts in other areas of the criminal justice system have required us to absorb the work that other agencies have abandoned, and further cuts threaten to require us to do more with less. A recent reduction in hours of the court clerk’s office, for example, limited the time we have to file and obtain critical court documents. There, tasks that used to be completed in a few hours can now take up to half a day.
Yet, we chose to accept this added burden instead of simply giving up on prosecutions. Budget cuts last year were realized by a combination of cuts to our very slim operating costs and through limited furloughs of employees.
Any further cuts this year can only come from our personnel budget, as there is nothing left to cut unless we abandon those cases that require expert testimony or transcripts of hearings. Abandoning any case is not an option in this office, and any cuts that impact the livelihood of our valued employees should be the last to be considered.
The thoughtful deliberations underway in Santa Fe demonstrate that our legislators are considering the impacts of their decisions on individual agencies, and not willing to simply slash budgets indiscriminately.
A letter to lawmakers
On Saturday, we hand-delivered a letter to members of the Senate Finance Committee, House Finance and Appropriations Committee and Bernalillo County’s legislative delegation. In the letter I plead our case for careful consideration of cuts to the budget of the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, as every dollar cut will impact prosecutions and employee livelihood. The text of that letter is included below:
An Open Letter to New Mexico Legislators:
As we approach the upcoming Special Session of the Legislature called to deal with the State’s budget crisis, the task before you is daunting. Your decisions ultimately determine the level of services we will be able to provide. As the elected District Attorney of the largest judicial district in the state, I implore you to carefully consider the unique position of those working in the criminal justice system who are trying to keep our communities safe.
When the FY09 budget was cut in January, the District Attorneys were spared drastic reductions compared to other state agencies. Our 1.9% cut was mostly realized through cuts to training, office supplies and other operating costs. We were still forced to ask our employees to take 2,063 hours of leave without pay. Those same cuts were carried over into this year and we are now faced with critical choices. With only 5% of our budget going to actual operations, and much of that money already allocated for essential services, each new percentage point cut in our budget can only be realized by cutting personnel costs. This will result in hardship to employees, an inability to retain essential and skilled employees and a reduction of services; much to the detriment of those we serve.
Unfortunately, although resources are declining, the amount of work is increasing. Many employees are working 12-15 hour days. We do the work because the alternative is unacceptable. The public entrusts us to hold violators of our laws accountable for their acts. We are working diligently to see this happens, no matter the obstacles. Criminals should not benefit from the State’s budget crisis, nor should families and children pay by compromising their safety and well-being.
The Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office has one of the “trimmest” budgets among judicial districts in the State. Our office provides our own in-house training, saving an estimated $40,000 a year. I do not use a state vehicle and many of our employees pay for their own office supplies to keep costs down. We have no cushion and we’ve worked tirelessly over the years to ensure the public get the greatest benefit for their tax dollars. A recent study compiled by AODA, based on national standards provided by the National District Attorney’s Association, showed that even with full appropriations, our budget only provides for 80% of the staff needed to effectively and efficiently handle the almost 30,000 cases we managed in FY09. Yet, we are doing the work and celebrating successes.
As legislators, you have always seen fit to preserve those essential public services that the State provides, particularly regarding public safety. With such an unenviable task before you, I urge you to consider each agency, and particularly those of District Attorneys and the courts, according to their individual needs and the services they provide. The safety and security of our citizens and communities should be an absolute priority.
Very truly yours,
Kari E. Brandenburg
Brandenburg is serving her third term as the district attorney in the Second Judicial District, which includes all of Bernalillo County.