By Fred Obee

Triplicate editor

Budget discussions for Del Norte County began this year with officials knowing they were nearly $1.7 million short of meeting basic needs.

In hearings this week, the news only got worse.

District Attorney Bob Drossel told the Board of Supervisors he needs to add four full-time positions to his department, in part to handle a crushing workload from Pelican Bay State Prison and in part to allow his current staff to take earned time off.

My department is in very grave need of help now, Drossel said.

While lawyers working on prison cases are reimbursed by the state, Drossel said unreimbursed costs to the county would increase his departments spending by $72,431.

I know the county situation is difficult, but these are priority matters, Drossel said.

Complicating his offices staffing problems is the need to allow two lawyers to take earned vacations. In one case, a deputy district attorney is owed 960 hours of paid vacation. Another has 600 hours of vacation coming.

Both are hard workers. They deserve the time off, but I need to cover the courts, Drossel said. Drossels solution in that case is to hire an attorney on contract for 13 months only. The position would be eliminated once the vacation time is used.

And although Sheriff Jim Maready will receive a windfall of $500,000 and will be able to hire four deputies and purchase new police cars, more police officers makes Drossel believe the workload in his department will only increase.

Adding officers, Drossel pointed out, results in more citations, more arrests, and consequently, a need for more lawyers in his office.

The supervisors said they tried to get a handle on the vacation issue some time ago, and ordered that no county employee can carry over vacation for more than a year and a half.

Newly appointed CAO Jeannine Galatioto said that is true, and that many county employees are losing earned vacation time as a result.

We have many, many employees who have stopped earning because of that issue, she said.

Drossel said in the case of his deputies, formal grievances were filed over the vacation time issue. A settlement granted his employees an extension. They must take their time off by Dec. 31, 2002.

Although the supervisors agreed to consider Drossels request, Supervisor Jack Reese said hell have a hard time increasing Drossels payroll in light of the deficit the county faces.

Supervisor Clyde Eller, too, pointed out even positions funded by Pelican Bay State Prison revenue ends up costing the county something, in clerks who handle personnel matters, office supplies and management.

Chief Probation Officer Bo Seymour added that under the current budget plan, his department will lose a juvenile probation officer, something that will genuinely hurt efforts to keep kids in school and out of trouble.

The county is already reeling from state cuts to mental health programs. Earlier this month the Mental Health Department announced it would lay off 10 people and not fill another 12 open positions in the department.

Just to keep the status quo alive, the county is going with a tin cup to the state government, asking for $1.7 million, arguing that the county cannot continue to provide state-mandated services unless adequate funding is provided.

For now, they are banking on the state coming to the countys rescue.

The supervisors must make final decisions on the budget by Oct. 2 to comply with state law.