Somerset County District Attorney Jeff Thomas is at odds with the board of commissioners, saying budget restrictions are handcuffing him from living up to his campaign pledge to stay tough on drug dealers.
Thomas, who took office after the 2020 budget was enacted, blames the department budget he inherited and claims "irrational" spending priorities by the commissioners have blocked him from adding staff to solve the problem while staying within that budget.
But Somerset's commissioners said Thomas is using his own math to support his claims – and that the DA's office remains fully funded.
Thomas sent a press release to The Tribune-Democrat outlining his frustrations.
“I made a vow to the residents of Somerset County that I would fight every day to get the drug dealers and Mexican cartels out of our community," he wrote, "however, since the day I walked into this office, the county commissioners have tied one hand behind my back."
To enact a 2020 budget and set tax millage for the coming year, the commissioners approved all planned expenditures in December, including a $593,592 budget requested in September by then-District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser.
Thomas said that budget total is down $20,000 from the previous year. Somerset commissioners said the figure is misleading because it reflects a continued savings Lazzari created early last year by shifting from two part-time prosecutors to a full-time position.
"It wasn't a cut. It was the budget that was submitted to us," Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said, while also noting Thomas' office staff remains at 12 employees.
Over the past three months, Thomas has sought – in separate attempts – to add an extra detective, an assistant district attorney and a clerk to his staff.
"We have have to live within in our means – and that includes making sure department heads run their offices efficiently," Commissioner Colleen Dawson responded in an interview Tuesday. "When a budget is adopted ... we have a commitment to our taxpayers, too."
Thomas acknowledges the county was unable to plan for his recent hiring requests back in December when the 2020 budget was adopted.
Thomas didn't assume duties until early January.
He said he's trying to live within his current budget, which he projects will be as much as $50,000 under at the end of the year.
Part of that savings is due to a switch he made by adding two part-time prosecutors who don't receive benefits instead of a full-time prosecutor.
Those two posts are among four in his office involving employees who aren't receiving county health-care coverage, a more than $10,000 savings per-person, he said.
"That's probably saving the county up to $50,000 this year," Thomas said. "I'm just asking to use part of that to add a clerk."
The county's commissioners said Thomas is banking on numbers that may never materialize at the end of the year.
An eligible full-time county employee in his office who doesn't have coverage could walk into the human resources office next week and seek to add it for themselves or their family.
Given the unstable economic conditions COVID-19 has brought, that is a realistic scenario, Tokar-Ickes said.
Thomas points out other that court-related county offices were granted budget increases last year.
He cited the jail and public defenders office as examples of departments that are trending "over-budget" this year.
"I just want to be treated fairly," Thomas said. “The commissioners have no problem throwing more money at hiring recovery specialists, re-entry personnel, and giving drugs like Suboxone and methadone to inmates, but they refuse to allocate enough resources to allow law enforcement to go after drug dealers in our communities."
Tokar-Ickes said she was "saddened" by that portrayal.
Efforts to add recovery and re-entry support professionals at the county level were initiated because of state grant funding the county received this year, she said.
For example, county jail officials worked with United Way grant writer Travis Hutzell to acquire funding to cover the cost of hiring someone who will be able to work with inmates being released from jail to help them transition to life at home again.
Aimed at reducing the rate of repeat offenses that send people back to prison – on the county's dime – the state funding county officials received must be spent on the re-entry support program, Tokar-Ickes added.
Law enforcement plays a crucial role in combating the drug epidemic, President Commissioner Gerald Walker said.
But arrests won't stop it alone, he added.
"We're trying to attack the drug epidemic from every angle," he said. "That includes supporting people so they don't end up buying drugs again."
There's no dispute between the sides about the increased expenses within the public defender's office this year.
But the commissioners said unforeseen expenses are to blame. With the county's full-time public defender on an extended leave, officials had to appoint a temporary full-time defender in his place, Tokar-Ickes said.
It's an additional hit to that budget, but it's necessary to keep the office staffed at last year's level given the caseload the office faces – even though the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the number of courtroom cases, she said.
Thomas said he is concerned about his office's caseload.
He, too, acknowledged court and magistrate hearings have been slowed by the pandemic. But arrests are still being made and new cases are piling up alongside ones that remain outstanding from 2019 and early 2020 that can't move forward.
"If they want to do things to help inmates, whatever," Thomas said. "Why can't my office add a clerk so my attorneys and detectives aren't spending their days doing paperwork?
"I'd rather have our detectives on the streets catching bad guys."
Thomas said he worries drug use and overdoses will only rise in the coming weeks as stimulus checks are deposited into taxpayers' bank accounts.
The commissioners said they'd support his efforts to seek grant funding for additional positions and haven't turned down his request to add a clerk – but won't consider it midway through the budget year while the county is focused on the ever-changing demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomas said he'll do all he can to crack down on drug trafficking regardless.
“I won’t back down," he said. "And I will not let these drug dealers off the hook."