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DA’s office argues for more positions in county budget

By Kristen Hackbarth

The Washoe Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday heard details of the proposed budget for the next fiscal year and debated solutions to meeting the demands of an unfunded mandate handed down by the state legislature in 2021. 

Zach Young, an assistant district attorney supervising the office’s criminal division, provided public comment at the onset of the meeting. He called the proposed budget for his office insufficient to meet new demands. 

The comment was in reference to the DA’s request for 14 new full time positions. Those positions are proposed to help the DA’s office meet the requirements of Assembly Bill 424. 

AB 424 requires a pretrial hearing be conducted within 48 hours for people who have been arrested. The new law places staffing demands on law enforcement and judicial agencies that now must provide staffing on weekends. The state did not provide funding to counties to implement the measure.

Washoe County Commissioner Bob Lucey
Washoe County Commissioner Bob Lucey

Commissioner Bob Lucey said the law has wide-reaching implications. 

“I know district attorneys and judges across the state, in every county, are having a very difficult time addressing the needs of these new laws,” Lucey said. “This is a major shift in how we process justice and how we process criminal cases here in the county.” 

Washoe County’s proposed budget includes 25 new full time employees spread across the DA’s office, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, district court, justice courts in Reno and Sparks and the public defender’s office. 

The DA’s office proposed 14 new full time employees, but just seven were included in the county budget. Those positions include four new district attorneys along with several support staff. 

Young and Lucey both said adding support staff was essential. Of the nine support staff positions requested, only three were approved. Young said this would have a direct impact on the victims of crime. 

Lucey said seven new positions isn’t enough and suggested either providing all or some of the remaining seven requested. 

“To not have adequate staff to address [pretrial release hearings] in a timely manner, is really in my opinion, a challenge to public safety,” he said. 

Commissioner Vaughn Hartung suggested the county take a different approach. 

“Maybe this commission needs to put time and effort into the DA’s office so that when we get unfunded mandates, we sue the state for the money,” he said. “If they’re going to spend time in the late night and force these things down on us then why isn’t the state coming up with the money? We should be questioning these things.” 

Commissioner Kitty Jung said in her 15 years on the board she’s seen many unfunded mandates handed down from the legislature to the counties and they’ve always figured out how to meet the demands. 

“I believe that we as a board will always be recipients of unfunded mandates from the state, barring any change to the law. I have no problem suing,” she said. 

County Manager Eric Brown said his staff will review that portion of the budget again, but the budget for staff was set for a reason. He said six additional positions funded through American Rescue Plan Act funds were approved for the DA’s office in December and to date only one has been filled. 

Jung suggests indigent fund audit 

Commissioner Kitty Jung said she was concerned about the more than $22 million in the budget for indigent services and said she wanted to ensure that it was being used at the “best and highest use.” 

The county is required by law to fund indigent services. Budget Manager Lori Cooke said the amount funded each year must also increase. The program reimburses local hospitals and other medical facilities for people who don’t qualify for other programs and cannot pay for their care.

Jung suggested an audit of the healthcare expenses, especially in light of recent news about local hospitals. She didn’t cite any by name, but specifically referenced a non-profit facility. Renown is the county’s non-profit hospital and prior to rebranding was known as Washoe Medical Center. 

Renown has recently made the news for dysfunction within its leadership ranks and the firing of CEO Tony Slonim, whose base salary was $1 million. Slonim also got a massive $650,000 bonus in 2020.Numerous past executives, many making more than $500,000 a year, were also terminated under Slonim.  

Jung called it a “boondoggle” and noted that non-profit hospitals pay no property tax, no sales tax and “they’re being subsidized by all of us.”

“It would be nice for the voters and the taxpayers here to see where their money goes at the hospital…I don’t think it’ll be nice, but I think it’ll be a nice explanation for the way things operate,” she said.

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