A backlog of drug cases in Ellis County will only get worse, due to a shortage of prosecutors in the Ellis County Attorney’s office.
With regret, the Ellis County Commission Monday evening denied a request from County Attorney Tom Drees to add a fifth full-time attorney to his office.
“I believe what Tom says is absolutely accurate. I believe he could sure use another attorney,” said Commissioner Butch Schlyer during the commission’s regular meeting on Monday evening.
Then he addressed Drees.
“I think since you were on the agenda the first time, it’s been impressed upon me even more that the county’s financial situation is just really, really bad,” Schlyer said. “Your timing on this is just atrocious.”
Drees in late February asked the commissioners to upgrade an existing part-time position to full-time, a $35,000 expense. Voicing support at that same meeting were law enforcement and court services professionals who echoed the need.
After being denied Monday evening, Drees acknowledged some cases aren’t getting prosecuted, sometimes when the clock runs out on time to file them.
“They end up being not filed, just based of the statute of limitations,” he said.
“In one of the offices there’s a tremendous backlog in the drug prosecutions waiting to be filed. There’s backlog in all the prosecutor’s offices, waiting to be filed,” he said.
“Last year we had nearly 1,500 reports referred to our office, and in a good year a prosecutor working very diligently can clear up 200, 250,” Drees said. “Well you do the math, five lawyers working diligent, that’s 1,250, but when 1,500 come in, there’s a backlog. There’s a little bit each year, each year, each year, all of that adds up.”
With revenue in the county falling short of spending for a number of years, the commissioners have directed the county departments and County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes to trim $2 million from the county’s 2020 budget to get it back on track.
“I really have reservations,” Schlyer told Drees and his fellow commissioners, “about allowing that extra $35,000, because it’s going to have to come from some other department somehow or somewhere.”
Smith-Hanes in the next few weeks will deliver to commissioners the first round of 2020 budget proposals from each of the county departments. All three commissioners said they’d met with Drees since he made the request in February. While convinced of the need, they couldn’t OK the money.
“Especially when we’re asking everyone to cut,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths. “There were a couple things that I think were great to talk to you about, that I think we got cleared up, there were issues of some of the prosecution not being taken care of. I’m glad we talked about that and I don’t believe that that’s true. Obviously in your position you have to selectively decide what cases to prosecute and I think you do a good job of that.”
Commission Chair Dean Haselhorst said it’s hard to find $35,000 when the county is already $2 million short.
“We don’t know where that $2 million is going to come from yet. We’re working on it. Phil’s working on it day and night and on weekends, trying to make numbers work,” Haselhorst said.
He said he can see the need.
“I can see your stack in that back room that you showed me today,” Haselhorst said. “I think it was 229 I believe you told me, sitting back there that haven’t been done yet. I know most of them were drug charges like you said.”
He said, however, that Drees will have to continue to prioritize until the commission can find out where the money is going to come from.
After the meeting, Drees said he understands the commission’s position, and confirmed that some cases get put on the back burner.
“We do the best we can,” he said. “We take the budget they give us, and we do the best we can.”
In other business, the commissioners approved selling an acre of land to Stephen and Fran Robben of Victoria for $800.
Public Works Director Bill Ring Sr. described the situation as a bit of a mystery because no one knew the ground was county property.
Ring said the acre doesn’t show up anywhere in any county records or inventory, other than a warranty deed from 1932, showing the county purchased it.
The Robbens purchased the acre at auction recently as part of a 320-acre parcel. Their title company discovered the county owned the southwest corner of the half section.
“We’ll probably never know, “ Ring said of why the county bought it in 1932. “The $50 that we paid was split between six people, so it’s not like anyone had a windfall.”
Also, Fire and Emergency Management Director Darin Myers told the commission that longtime firefighter Scotty Wellbrock, with 42 years of service, has been named the new fire captain at the Victoria station.