Commonwealth’s attorney asks for more pay for assistants

Published 9:22 am Friday, April 15, 2011

COURTLAND—Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke’s concerns are real.

He’s got nine murder cases from Franklin and Southampton County slated for prosecution with three rookie assistant attorneys. The most experienced has 18 months under her belt, while anyone with experience leaves for better pay.

Cooke also works from one of the only courthouses in the region without a security system.

“We have more violent criminals per square mile at the courthouse (on court days), and we’ve seen gang members come in the courthouse,” he told the Board of Supervisors during a Wednesday meeting to discuss the county’s $52.3 million draft budget.

“They think nothing about having a witness killed,” Cooke said.

The 2011-12 budget includes $108,000 for a security system and $78,000 to pay two employees to operate it. The draft spending plan also includes 2 percent raises for all employees, including those who work in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

Cooke is concerned about the salaries paid to his three assistant attorneys, two of whom drive an hour to work and one who drives 1½ hours while paying nearly $4 a gallon for gas. With the proposed 2 percent pay raise, the most experienced assistant attorney will make $59,876 next year. The other two will be paid $46,914.

At that rate of pay, it’s hard to keep assistant attorneys on staff, Cooke told supervisors.

“Each is young, inexperienced and they’re all working hard and doing a fine job,” he said. “We have become a training ground for inexperienced attorneys.”

Recently, one left for a job that paid $20,000 more a year; two left for similar jobs that pay $10,000 more a year.

Supervisors made no response to Cooke’s concerns.

County Administrator Mike Johnson said Thursday all positions are assigned grades and a salary range. A market study of on what the county pays its employees was done in 2005 or 2006.

The county would address the pay for all offices before making any changes, Johnson said.