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Raise in store for county attorney, but other hikes challenged

May 26, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Employee raises continue to be an issue at county budget hearings. Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett included them in the proposed budget he presented to county commissioners this month.

Along with higher salaries for deputy attorneys and support staff, the proposal included a scheduled $2,500 raise for the elected official, bringing his salary to $84,077.

A 2010 commission resolution laid out raises for elected officials for four years, and Bennett's raise followed that policy.

Skeptical review

Some commissioners were skeptical the other pay increases were warranted.

Personnel costs make up 89 percent of the county attorney's office's $1.4 million budget proposed for fiscal 2014. Overall, Bennett's request is up about $30,000 from the year before.

Four of his staff attorneys received raises averaging $2,300. Two attorneys received no raise and the salary of an unfilled lawyer position dropped by $21,000.

"These are the salaries that I believe are an accurate reflection of making my office competitive and paying an honest salary for an honest day's work," Bennett said.

"I don't anticipate them going up again; in two years they will not go up again but for a cost of living expense."

The county attorney said he wants to fix attorney salaries to their positions and only give cost-of-living increases in the future.

He said once lawyers obtain some experience, he cannot pay the same salary they could find in the private sector.

"I pay my attorneys for the jobs I ask them to do," Bennett said. "There may be some turnover, especially at the lower levels."

Crime rate

In his written request, Bennett said the crime rate in Fremont County is rising. He said the rate grew 22.5 percent from 2006 to 2010, decreased in 2011 and grew 13 percent in 2012. He expects the workload this year to increase by 13 percent over 2012, reflecting the legal work associated with last year's crimes.

At the meeting, commissioner Travis Becker said former County Attorney Brian Varn gave raises in the middle of last year, and questioned Bennett granting further increases now.

"I'm concerned that some of these might be adjusted a lot more than what you might think," he said.

The county attorney office support staff salary line item will climb from $280,000 to $285,000, according to the proposed budget.

The former county attorney gave the raises, Bennett said, and he felt obligated to follow through.

Commissioner Doug Thompson echoed Becker, saying some employees already had a raise and now would receive another. He asked Bennett to create a chart showing his staff's salaries one year ago, after the mid-year change and under the proposed budget.

According to the written budget request, Bennett expects to spend more on subscriptions, training and travel, totaling $10,000.

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Fremont County Commissioners