For his entire tenure as the region's chief criminal prosecutor, Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox has relied on one thing to lure lawyers into the world of public service: the promise of higher pay.
State law starts out criminal prosecutors with a salary of $42,900 a year, Mr. Cox tells young attorneys, and that's less than half of what they could make if they went to work for private firms.
But commit to it for the long haul, he tells them, and they'll be rewarded by way of "service credits," which can translate into incrementally bigger paychecks each year. With credits, prosecutors generally are given a $2,600-a-year bump in pay for each year of service.
BY THE NUMBERS
* $42,900 -- Starting pay for state prosecutor
* $2,600 -- Approximate yearly pay increase with service credits in effect
* $112,000 -- Prosecutor's approximate salary after 25 years of service
* 3 -- Number of years legislature has denied service credits since 2003
Source: Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference
RECENT PAY HISTORY
State employees, including those in government, higher education and some K-12 workers, have not received a pay raise in three years.
But as the economy has worsened and the legislature is preparing to remove service credits from the state budget for the third time in seven years, Mr. Cox said that, for the first time, he fears he will not be able to lure in talent, let alone convince attorneys to become career prosecutors.
"It's hard to attract prosecutors because of pay," Mr. Cox said, even when a young attorney has a strong sense of public duty.
"If they stay long enough, yes, things get better, but now I don't have that tool," he said.
The recruitment and retention of state prosecutors is one of many problems Tennessee faces in its new reality of budget cuts that can affect the public in unexpected ways, said Wally Kirby, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.
Prosecutors are the only state employees with the responsibility of advocating for victims of crime, Mr. Kirby said, and "experience counts." The inability to build up a cadre of prosecutors who have substantial experience can put victims at a disadvantage in court when going up against seasoned defense lawyers, he said.
Mr. Kirby said district attorneys general across the state are beginning to see again what happened 30 years ago when statutory pay increases for assistant prosecutors did not exist -- lawyers cutting their teeth in the D.A.'s fast-paced world of litigation only to leave a couple of years later for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.
"These pay increases were put into law so that wouldn't happen. Abandoning (pay increases) now is counterproductive," Mr. Kirby said, noting that, unlike many state employees, lawyers must invest years in their education and often graduate with substantial student debt.
The service credits have not been written into the governor's proposed 2011 state budget, although Mr. Kirby conceded that proposed tax increases on cable TV service at least would prevent district attorney offices across the state from having to lay off about 63 employees.
Funding pay increases for every state prosecutor would cost an additional $800,000 next year, Mr. Kirby said.
Mr. Cox said he can't blame his attorneys for being frustrated. Talking about the issue in Mr. Cox's office, prosecutors Brian Finley, 33, and Lance Pope, 30, said they came to work at the D.A.'s office because they genuinely felt a calling to public service. But they also have missed out on promised bumps in pay since joining about two years ago, they said.
At some point, they said, it will become a matter of simple economics.
"I'm happy where I'm at," said Mr. Finley, who left private practice to become a public prosecutor. "But I've got two kids, little mouths to feed, (school) tuition. It's a consideration for the future."
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he understands the sacrifice lawyers make to go into public service.
"No one (in the Legislature) relishes the thought of losing good prosecutors," the attorney said. "But we're choosing between bad options every day (because of the economy). That's the cycle we're in."
Sen. Berke said he fully expects the Legislature to reinstate the service credits program for prosecutors once the economy bounces back.
"If we're going to keep quality people, we have to consider these measures," he said.