State cuts affect DA's office

State cuts have caused the local district attorney’s office to cut staff, programs and hours that directly benefit the public.

The state approved funding reductions this summer for departments across the board, but the court systems, and thus district attorney’s offices, have felt the brunt of cuts approved in the state’s $19.7 billion budget.

In addition to an approved hiring freeze on about 35 vacancies of clerks, assistant district attorneys and other positions, the state OK’d the reduction of 55 support staff positions for district attorneys. The reductions would save about $3.8 million, according to the state.

In Catawba County, District 25 Attorney Jay Gaither said his office has been forced to cut non-lawyer staff positions, a worthless check program and hours for public access because of the reductions.

The office has lost two non-lawyer staff positions this year, in addition to three other positions it lost in the past year and a half, Gaither said.

A loss of support staff directly affects the district attorney’s office hours for the public.

Gaither said the vital operations of the DA’s office continue to include trial preparation and providing assistance for law enforcement and victims.

Because there is usually one staff member for every two assistant district attorneys, cuts have forced staff to spend more time helping attorneys and less time meeting with the public.

“When we lost those staff positions that are non-essential to the court, we were no longer able to provide that same (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) service to the public,” Gaither said, adding that the DA’s office still has traffic court on Friday, which is the main source of public front-desk contact.  

Gaither has implemented hour changes in two offices in the area. At the justice center in Newton, the district attorney’s office is now open from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday as well as 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The DA’s office in Hickory is closed to the public.

“It still operates with staff and attorneys, but we had to cut back on the time that our staff is available to meet with the public,” Gaither said of the Hickory office.

Cuts have also forced Gaither’s office to cut a worthless check program. The program helped area merchants and citizens collect more than $1 million since its inception in 2004.

After the state cut funding for the program, Gaither’s office continued to operate it out of pocket. But without the funding for staff to run the program, Gaither said his office had to eventually shut it down.

“We notified the participating businesses, (more than 1,000), that we would no longer be able to continue,” Gaither said, adding that the 25th district was the first in the state to begin a worthless check program without state funding. 

The program operated more than six years with self-generated revenue sufficient for staff and operational costs, Gaither said.

“I deeply regret that the state found it necessary in their budget cuts to eliminate the worthless check program, and I hope that in the future the legislature will work to renew this program at some point. We recognize the benefit to businesses and individuals that the worthless check program provides, but it is very likely that this program will be eliminated.”