ALAMOSA — Unless it receives a significant budget increase, the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will lose two seasoned attorneys in the next few months, leaving only one attorney in the office — the DA herself — capable of handling the multiple murder and other felony cases pending in the courts.
“It’s a disaster for the community,” said District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen. “My hope is it could be stopped.”
If this departure cannot be prevented, the DA hopes at least future attorney exoduses could be avoided. “I think people need to know, because it’s going to keep happening.”
The most dire challenge right now is the imminent departure of Newmyer-Olsen’s second in command, Assistant DA Ashley McCuaig, an attorney with a decade of experience, and Chief Deputy DA Ashley Fetyko, also an experienced attorney who is “my backbone for my litigators,” Newmyer-Olsen said.
Both have been with the local DA’s office since 2015. Newmyer-Olsen has served in the DA’s office since 2009 and as DA since 2017.
“We are a team, and we have a good synergy,” Newmyer-Olsen said.
She said losing her most experienced attorneys would be devastating to her office and the people it serves throughout the district, which encompasses the entire San Luis Valley.
If McCuaig and Fetyko leave, the next most experienced prosecutor in the office has less than two years’ experience in prosecution. One other attorney in the DA’s office has just begun prosecuting felony cases.
McCuaig and Fetyko do not want to leave the DA’s office or Alamosa, as they have made a commitment and a home here. They met at the office and have since married. Both said they love Alamosa. However, as they think about beginning a family and eventually retiring, they cannot do either if they remain at the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s office.
They said it is not even the salaries themselves but the lack of benefits — primarily retirement and health benefits — that create impossible impediments to their remaining in Alamosa. The office basically has no retirement benefits, and insurance deductibles are so high that employees having a baby, surgery or other medical procedures would be paying those bills for many years.
“We can’t afford to have a family here, and that’s not something we are willing to sacrifice,” Fetyko said.Newmyer-Olsen added that both attorneys are not in this for the money because they both had worked in lucrative civil practices previously. “They are here because they believe in prosecution. They believe in justice. They believe in doing the right thing and fighting for people who are victimized,” she said.
“I picked this community,” McCuaig said. “I wanted to come here.” He had lived in Alamosa as a child and wanted to return, he said.
Fetyko added, “This has been a very difficult decision.”
To try to ease the blow, the couple has decided to stagger their departure, with Fetyko planning on seeking other employment in the metro area first and McCuaig following after the DA has found a replacement for Fetyko.
McCuaig said, “We are trying to make it as less catastrophic as we can … We will live separately and commute to try to absorb the blow.”
Newmyer-Olsen is hoping she can keep her two top attorneys and sent a desperate plea last Monday, Oct. 22 to the San Luis Valley County Commissioners Association, which funds the DA’s office, the only entity the association is required to fund.
“To be clear, this departure is the result of this office’s inability to provide legitimate health insurance or retirement,” Newmyer-Olsen told the commissioners in her email. She said other DA’s offices in the state do not struggle to provide these basic requirements.
If Fetyko and McCuaig remained here, “they would be sacrificing their future family, security and well-being,” Newmyer-Olsen added. “This is a decision no employee should have to make in a district where county employees enjoy these basic securities without question.”
The DA told the commissioners this is a problem she had brought to their attention previously, it remains an issue, and unless it is resolved, “the consequences are potentially disastrous for the citizens of this community.”
Newmyer-Olsen told the commissioners that the budget as proposed to be funded by the association would not permit a cost-of-living increase or merit-based raises for the DA’s employees, which would mean that in 10 of the last 11 years the DA’s office had not kept up with inflation.
She added that the DA’s office is considering switching insurance plans to provide a little more coverage to employees, but the budget as proposed will not cover that additional expense, meaning any emergency funding in the office would have to be used for health insurance.
A third of the DA’s employees are grant funded, and the DA’s office was awarded funding for a restitution clerk but has no office space for the new staff member unless the records in the storage room can be digitized, a $25,000 expense for which the DA’s office has no money in the budget.
Newmyer-Olsen concluded in her email to commissioners, “Failing to provide a future for attorneys here will continue to result in a revolving door which does nothing but underserve the citizens of this community, a harsh reality that is now coming to fruition.”
She and McCuaig said the DA’s office had requested a greater increase in its budget last year with the intention of continuing to seek increases to bring the office up to a more appropriate funding level, since it had not been adequately funded for some time. The DA’s budget is about $1.1 million, with the commissioners’ association funding the office for $682,720 in 2015, $697,594 in 2016, $714,390 in 2017 and $879,990 in 2018. The DA’s request in 2018 was for $942,761 and $1,109,569 for 2019.
(McCuaig said based on population and caseload, the 12th Judicial DA’s budget should be about $2 million.)
“In order to provide effective representation, the Office of the District Attorney must be properly funded and properly staffed,” the DA’s budget request stated. “The citizens of the Twelfth Judicial District have as much a right to effective representation as a criminal defendant.”
McCuaig noted that recently in court he was the only prosecutor while there were nine defense attorneys in the courtroom. The 12th Judicial District Attorney’s office is one of two in the state that has fewer prosecutors than the number of public defenders in the public defenders’ office.
The 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office (Huerfano and Las Animas Counties) is suing its funding counties for lack of appropriate funding and is dismissing cases because of insufficient staff to prosecute them. That district has less than half the population and about two-thirds fewer felonies than the 12th Judicial District.
The number of felony cases alone has increased in the Valley in recent years. For example in Alamosa County alone, felony cases increased from 368 in 2014 to 426 in 2015 and 652 in 2016. That does not include the hundreds of misdemeanor and traffic cases.
Newmyer-Olsen does not intend to sue the counties but is urging them to appropriately fund her office so she can staff it at a level that will provide adequate and experienced representation for area residents.
The SLV County Commissioners Association was scheduled to meet Monday, Oct. 29 to finalize its 2019 budget.
Newmyer-Olsen said she would do everything she could to keep her lead attorneys, but even if they leave, there will be more attorneys in the future who will face the same challenges. She added that when the DA’s office has to continually train young attorneys who lack experience prosecuting cases, the constituents and everyone in the judicial system suffer as a result.
“We lose deputies every year on the year,” McCuaig added. Fetyko said in the last three years that she has been in the office, she has seen seven attorneys leave.
In addition to more funding from the Valley association, a long-term solution would be state funding for the district attorney offices throughout Colorado, something the state DA association has been working on but so far has been unsuccessful with the legislature, Newmyer-Olsen explained.
Public defenders, on the other hand, are state employees with benefits such as PERA. (The district attorney is a state employee but is the only one in the office who is.)
Short of an increase from the county association, a change in state funding (which if it occurred would not be immediate) or a “gofundme” account being set up, the DA’s office will likely lose its two top veteran attorneys in the next few months.
“It’s going to go bad,” Newmyer-Olsen said. “It’s going to be bad for the community, for victims, it’s going to be bad for the judicial system as a whole. When it goes bad, the community needs to know why.”