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Budget boosts pay for sheriffs, district attorneys

Lesser raises for workers on state’s lower rungs

The state’s politically powerful district attorneys, judges, and sheriffs are set to receive sizable pay increases starting this month, but lower-paid assistant prosecutors and child-care workers will receive much smaller raises under the state budget approved by legislators Monday.

The 11 district attorneys will receive a 15 percent annual increase, or nearly $23,000, jumping from $148,843 to $171,561 under the new state budget. They will make $20,000 more than the governor, and $38,000 more than the state’s attorney general.

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The state’s 14 sheriffs will get 23 percent pay increases, most of them going from $123,209 to $151,709 under the budget.

Trial court judges will see their salaries rise from $130,000 to $160,000 Tuesday, the beginning of the new fiscal year. The 23 percent increase was approved in a prior budget.

The pay increases made it through the House and Senate without opposition, despite growing concern within the criminal justice community over the low salaries paid to assistant district attorneys. The position’s starting salary is $37,500. The average pay for the prosecutors after several years of experience is generally in the low- to mid-$40,000 range.

Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the low pay for assistant district attorneys and public defenders has made it difficult to attract and retain top talent. The bar association recently released a report decrying the low pay in both jobs.

“We’re pretty much at rock bottom in terms of pay scale,” Healy said. “We obviously want to see much more attention paid to this.”

‘There is usually disparity between the leadership and those who start at the bottom.’

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Senate President Therese Murray declined to comment on the pay increases. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo also declined to comment.

Colleen McGonagle, a spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian Dempsey, said the “budget provides funding for cost-of-living raises to public safety officials, who have not received them in a number of years, comparable to those for members of the judiciary and clerks in prior years.”

Governor Deval Patrick, who would have to sign the spending plan before it could become law, said he is still reviewing it.

Assistant district attorneys would receive a small bump under a $500,000 item included in the budget. District attorneys would be given discretion to dole out those increases, but if they were spread equally, the state’s 700 assistant district attorneys each would receive about $715 more a year.

That means assistant district attorneys in Massachusetts would still earn significantly less than counterparts in other states. In New Hampshire, entry-level prosecutors earn $52,000; in New York and Connecticut, they make $60,000.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe defended the hefty increase for district attorneys, saying the elected officials last received a pay increase in 2007. Averaged over the past seven years, the increase comes to 2 percent annually, he said.

“We are happy that the Legislature gave us a 2 percent increase since last time,’’ O’Keefe said. “We are grateful.”

He compared the gap in pay between district attorneys and assistant district attorneys to a typical workplace. “There is usually disparity between the leadership and those who start at the bottom,’’ O’Keefe said.

The budget would also raise from $148,843 to $171,561 the salary of Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel to the Committee for Public Counsel Services, whose salary is tied to the salaries of district attorneys.

The committee, which spends $167 million to represent indigent defenders, declined to comment. An entry-level salary for the committee’s staff attorney is $40,000.

The average salary for the 500 defense attorneys is in the mid-$50,000 range. The budget does not provide an increase in their pay.

Of the state’s 14 sheriffs, two are paid less than the others. The Nantucket sheriff will see his pay rise from $71,332 to $95,816. The sheriff’s salary in Dukes County will rise from $97,271 to $119,771.

John Birtwell, spokesman for Plymouth Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr., president of the state sheriffs association, said the increases are based on a requirement that sheriffs’ salaries be 95 percent of the pay for District Court associate justices.

The Legislature gave much smaller, one-time increases to lower-paid human services and early childhood workers.

About 30,000 early childhood educators, who earn $26,000 a year on average, will get a one-time 2 percent bump, equivalent to $520 a year or $10 a week, according to Leo Delaney, president of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care.

“It really does not put a lot of money in their pockets at all, and that’s the sad part,” said Delaney, whose group had asked lawmakers for a 5 percent increase. Still, he said, he was grateful for the bonus.

Lawmakers were able to boost spending in the $36.5 billion budget after they used rosier revenue projections to find an additional $120 million, said Andrew Bagley, director of research and public affairs at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a private group that tracks state finances.

Bagley said he had no reason to doubt the honesty of the revision.

But he pointed out that the state is facing potentially costly fixes to its troubled Health Connector website and is paying about $10 million a month to keep people in temporary health plans while officials scramble to put them into permanent plans that comply with the federal health care law.

Given these costs, “it would have been better to hold the money in reserve,” Bagley said.

Senate budget chief Stephen M. Brewer defended the revision, saying it was based on the improving economy and a desire to fund favored programs.

Asked if it was responsible, Brewer said, “Without a doubt.”

But the budget also relies on $75 million in casino and slot parlor revenue that could evaporate this fall, if voters approve a ballot question to repeal the state’s gambling law. “That’s yet another exposure that we may face,” Bagley said.

If the money does not materialize, lawmakers might have to make cuts or dip deeper into the state’s reserve account, DeLeo said Monday. The budget already uses $140 million from the rainy day fund.

“Obviously, it’s a concern,” DeLeo said.

To save money, the budget closes a costly Medicaid loophole, preventing detox centers from sending drug samples to testing clinics run by the same owner.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, which pushed the change, said it would save the state’s Medicaid program $6.6 million.

The budget also includes a cost-saving measure that would change the rules so that prisoners’ Medicaid coverage would be suspended instead of terminated after arraignment.

This would allow the state to bill Medicaid if an inmate is hospitalized, and the federal government would reimburse at least half the cost.

And inmates would have their coverage immediately restored upon release, so they would have easier access to health care, especially substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said in a statement that the change “will provide greater continuity of care, promote public safety and, at the same time, save valuable taxpayer dollars.”

The budget also seeks to reduce over-medicating of the elderly, by requiring nursing homes to receive written consent from residents before giving them certain psychotropic drugs.

Backers said some nursing homes use the drugs to calm residents, not because they are medically necessary.

“This is a simple yet necessary step in informing some of our most vulnerable citizens, elderly and Alzheimer’s patients,” said state Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives, a Newburyport Democrat.

Felice J. Freyer and David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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