Chief Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker (left) talks with Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, Jr. during the Tex McIver murder trial at the Fulton County Courthouse. Bob Andres AJC FILE PHOTO

DEEPER FINDINGS: Fulton County DA can’t hire new attorneys after overspending budget

The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office has overspent its budget by more than $1 million, prompting the county manager to call for a moratorium on hiring new department staff.

Without additional money, District Attorney Paul Howard said he can’t bring on new lawyers — including four that have already been offered jobs with the county. Eleven attorney positions and one administrative position are open.

“It has a severe impact on our office,” Howard said. “People in our office will have to do more work, and they already feel somewhat overburdened.”

VIDEO: In other Fulton news

It is the second time in nine months that Fulton County leaders asked a judge to give them a temporary collection order.

More than half a million dollars of the $1.4 million in cost overruns are due to the expense of prosecuting Tex McIver for killing his wife, Diane, Howard said. The rest — about $800,000 — comes from Howard’s decision to pay staffers higher than county-minimum salaries.

Higher salaries have led to less turnover in the office, Howard said, but have also cost him more than was originally allocated for his employees.

Howard is asking county commissioners to come up with the money. If they don’t, he said, he may have to release 30 percent of his administrative staff — about 70 people — to fund the lawyers’ positions.

“We’re not just here making up a disaster,” he said. “It’s something that’s real.”

Dick Anderson, the Fulton County manager, said Howard has been “a victim of his own success” in reducing turnover. Ordinarily, the district attorney’s office has money left in its budget at the end of the year, he said. Howard has been the district attorney for more than two decades.

Some county commissioners were sympathetic to his plight, but said there’s no money to give Howard. There is only $700,000 in Fulton’s contingency fund. And besides, County Commissioner Lee Morris said, mid-August was too early in the year to exhaust that fund.

More money may be available from other departments that have underspent their budgets, but County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said the district attorney’s office isn’t the only one that can make a case for more money and more people.

And Bob Ellis, vice chair of the Fulton County commission, told Howard he should have paid more attention to his budget as he set the salaries for staff.

“That was your call,” he said. “We can’t obligate funds we don’t have.”

Howard’s budget increased by $1.3 million in 2018 — a 6 percent hike — and was $2.4 million higher than it had been in 2016, a 12 percent jump over two years.

Howard said his office is still short-staffed compared to other big cities. Being unable to bring on new workers “has a devastating effect” on prosecutions, he said.

While the decision to pay higher salaries has been good in many ways, it’s also left the department in a lurch.

“When we did this at the beginning of the year, no one thought this would be the consequence,” Howard said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.