By SUSAN MENDE
CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators on Monday night agreed to hike salaries for the county’s assistant district attorneys following a 45-minute debate that one legislator described as a “three-ring circus.”
Lawmakers voted 10-4 to increase salaries paid to eight assistant D.A.’s who work under District Attorney Mary E. Rain, who hired a new slate of assistants after she defeated former District Attorney Nicole M. Duve in the November election.
The vote came after Assistant Public Defender Steven G. Ballan, president of the county Indigent Defenders union, disputed Ms. Rain’s information and harshly criticized her for not following the usual process for wage hikes.
“You have a human resource director and a county administrator who were not included in this process,” Mr. Ballan said. “This is an insult to every hardworking, dedicated county employee. I ask you to carefully consider what you are about to do.”
Ms. Rain countered that unlike her staff, attorneys in the county’s Public Defender’s Office don’t have to be available 24 hours per day. She said Mr. Ballan earns $72,000 a year and primarily handles misdemeanor cases rather than felonies.
Chief Assistant District Attorney David E. Haggard will see his salary increase from $80,816 to $98,575, a jump that opponents criticized as being too steep.
The salary increases for all prosectors total about $48,000 a year, but the funding is already available in the D.A.’s budget.
“That’s a 22 percent increase,” said Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid. “I’m definitely not in favor of this. It’s going to cost us millions over the long term.”
Joining Mr. Acres in voting against the salary hikes were legislators Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, and Alexander A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler. Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, was absent.
Mr. Lightfoot said he was discouraged by the tone of the debate.
“It’s like the Ringling Brothers circus tonight. It really makes me sick this has deteriorated like this,” he said.
Ms. Rain told lawmakers her staff already has made significant improvements in prosecuting crimes and has helped reduce the number of inmates in the county jail, which saves the county money.
“If I have quality assistants, I can help the county with its budget,” Ms. Rain argued. “There are no back-door deals, no secret deals.”
Ononodaga County District Attorney William J. FitzPatrick traveled from the Syracuse area to lobby on Ms. Rain’s behalf.
Based on salaries paid in other parts of the state, Mr. FitzPatrick said the salary increases were reasonable.
“The priority is public safety. If you don’t have that, everything collapses,” he said.
Several legislators said they feel the D.A.’s office is on the right track and it makes sense to increase salaries if it will keep assistant D.A.’s from leaving the county for more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
Under the new salaries, the annual salary for full-time assistant D.A.’s will range from $56,536 to $73,394.
“They have all been underfunded,” said Jason A. Clark, D-Norfolk. “I think this needs to be dealt with now. It’s long overdue.”