Flathead County

‘A Thankless Job’

The Flathead County Attorney’s Office is struggling to recruit and retain prosecutors as heavy stress loads, low pay and a rise in remote work have deterred prospective lawyers from the position

By Maggie Dresser
Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner appears in Flathead County District Court in Kalispell for a hearing for Zain Glass on July 19, 2023. Glass is charged with a felony count of deliberate homicide after a fatal stabbing in Columbia Falls on Sept. 20, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner was first elected to office in 2018, he remembers an “abundance” of applications stacking up on his desk from lawyers hoping to become prosecutors. But as Ahner looks to recruit new prosecutors in the wake of recent resignations, Ahner isn’t seeing the same level of interest he once did.

Meanwhile, as the positions sit vacant, criminal and civil cases are piling up.

The county attorney’s office currently has three vacancies as of Sept. 1, and Ahner is working to bring the department to a full staff of 15 prosecutors. Prior to July, there were only 13 deputy county attorneys in the budget before the county commissioners approved two more for fiscal year 2024. All three vacancies are for felony prosecutors.

Ahner said issues like heavy stress levels, low pay and the rise of remote work are contributing to the recruitment and retention challenges, with some prosecutors taking state jobs that can now be done from home offices. Additionally, two former county attorneys have left to work for the city of Kalispell.

“We have the lowest pay in the valley, long hours, low flexibility for scheduling and extremely high stress,” Ahner said. “It’s completely thankless.”

At a county budget meeting in May, commissioners Pam Holmquist, Randy Brodehl and Brad Abell supported the addition of two more deputy county attorney positions, with salaries that start between $84,000 and $90,000.

“I know the county attorney is having some retention issues similar to what the sheriff and 911 is having,” Holmquist said. “It’s just the way it is right now. Things are more expensive, and wages are going up. The county, in order to keep good employees, is going to have to keep up with that somehow.”

Commissioners last May voted to increase salaries by 4% for the county’s elected officials and employees while the county attorney’s position received an 8% bump, bringing Ahner’s salary to $136,393.

As the population grows and other departments like the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office experience inadequate staffing, Ahner said his office isn’t seeing a growth in overall cases, despite the uptick in law enforcement’s call volume. On average, prosecutors deal with about 500 felonies per year, which has been steady for the last decade.

Flathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell pictured May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The sheriff’s office, too, has struggled with staffing in recent years, which was down by 12 deputies at one point. While vacancies have since been filled, Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said his department previously did not have the resources for proactive policing and he had fewer staff handling more violent and complicated charges.

Violent crimes like homicides and assault charges have also spiked in recent years, he said, requiring more resources from law enforcement and prosecutors.

“I think the difficulty is you are seeing more and more go to trial, which is more case-work and more individuals that are being prosecuted for misdemeanors and felonies,” Heino said of violent crimes. “So, you get that backlog with any staffing issue.”

But despite the flat growth in the quantity of cases, Ahner said rules within the justice system often delay cases and add on more hours of labor. For example, a set of laws involving probation revocation revisions that were signed into law following the 2017 Legislative Session were a “kick in the gut” for prosecutors, Ahner said.

Under Senate Bill 63, looser rules surrounding probation revocation hearings were installed and individuals who violate probation are now only sent for a formal revocation hearing if “appropriate responses under the incentives and interventions grid have been exhausted.” The law’s intent is to prevent or limit revocation based on technical or compliance violations for low-risk probationers.

“They eliminated or reduced penalties on lower-level offenses and that took a lot of the teeth out of probation and made probation revocations an exhausting effort,” Ahner said.

Ahner said before the law went into effect, prosecutors could easily initiate revocation proceedings, which would involve a couple of short hearings. Now, he said, the hearings stretch on for months and sometimes years.

Additionally, Ahner said digital evidence like law enforcement body camera footage and cell phone data makes case reviews more time consuming.

“We are struggling with a number of different factors that have made our job a whole lot harder,” Ahner said.

While case numbers have remained steady, Ahner said homicide charges have spiked, which requires more time and resources. The county attorney’s office now handles an average of 10 homicide cases per year compared to 1.5 cases when Ahner was elected in 2018.

As the county attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office brainstorm how to best utilize their limited resources, Ahner said their departments are constantly triaging – prioritizing violent and sexual crimes while lower-level offense cases get pushed to the bottom of the stack.

With only 12 county attorneys tackling a significant workload, Ahner said their office also receives floods of complaints daily, ranging from grievances about jail releases to lenient plea agreements, and he wishes the community could show county officials more compassion.

“This valley should be extremely grateful for the people that work here,” Ahner said. “I don’t know why they keep coming back to work. They get yelled at every day. It’s a thankless job, and they’re pouring their hearts into their cases and it’s a sacrifice for their community and for our partners in law enforcement.”