Budget problems in the county state's attorney's office have prompted two Circuit Court prosecutors to announce their resignations, bringing to five the number of attorneys who have left the office since January.
Assistant State's Attorneys Timothy J. McCrone and Jason A.Shapiro both said that the lure of private practice -- which offers significantly higher income for an attorney -- became too strong in light of possible pay cuts and the elimination of salary increases.
Attorneys in the office will have to forgo pay increases, cost ofliving raises and merit pay for at least one year under the county budget plan.
With the office short-staffed, chief State's Attorney William R. Hymes and his second in command, Deputy State's Attorney Dwight Thompson, expect they will have to handle cases to pick up the slack.
Shapiro and McCrone said their decisions to leave primarilycame down to finances. Each would lose an estimated $4,000 to $7,000a year under the current budget crunch.
"I just find it disappointing that no one has come to the defense of our budget," said Shapiro, 29, who has been a county prosecutor for three years. "I'm sure we won't be the last to leave."
Shapiro, an outspoken attorney who warned at last month's county budget hearings that cuts would provoke resignations, will be leaving in July to join Rochlin, Settleman and Goldman in Laurel.
"They're willing to just let us walk away, and Ithink that's really a shame," Shapiro said.
"This isn't just about trash piling up on lawns. We're talking about crimes, like rape, murder and robbing. This is serious stuff, and no one seems to care."
Hymes, who said he has personally had to handle one court case already because of the resignations, said he is disappointed to lose more people but maintained that quality of the office's prosecuting power will not suffer.
"I hate like the dickens to lose good, seasonedprosecutors," Hymes said. "But we've still got a lot of experienced people here to guide in the newcomers."
McCrone, a six-year veteran prosecutor, expects to leave in 30 days to join the Ellicott City law firm of O'Connor, Keehner and Hogg, which was formed in January when all three partners left the state's attorney's office.
"I want to be in a position to send my kids to college," said McCrone, 38, who was the supervisor of the office's special narcotics section.
"Two years without any pay raise is a tough prospect."
McCrone also said the grim county financial picture may prompt other attorneys to leave. At least one other attorney in the office has spoken of leaving soon, McCrone said.
"It's a natural progression to make, to go from a state's attorney's office to private practice," McCrone said.
"Although I'm sure the office's financial condition is making otherpeople consider their situation sooner than they thought."
The state's attorney's office is one of several county departments faced with budget cutbacks. Although a proposal by Hymes to furlough attorneys' salaries was rejected by county officials, the office still was faced with cutting an estimated $219,000 from its $2.5 million budget.
"It's going to be massive," Hymes said of the impact of the budgetcut. The office will probably have to hire entry-level attorneys to replace McCrone and Shapiro, Hymes said.
An entry-level assistant state's attorney in Howard County earns $32,500.
McCrone earned more than $50,000 and Shapiro $40,000; with the salary savings in hiring entry-level people, the office will likely be able to avoid any future pay cuts, Hymes said.
With the loss of McCrone and Shapiro, along with the January resignations of Ronald R. Hogg, Robert N. Keehner and Richard P. O'Connor, the office has lost five of its 11 CircuitCourt prosecutors. Cases in that court deal with felony crimes.
Hymes said the exodus of attorneys to private practice is inevitable.
"The system is not designed to create lifetime positions," said Hymes, who said attorneys in private practice can expect to earn up to $200,000 a year.
"We just simply cannot pay people enough to be career attorneys here."
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who laid off 40 county workers on Monday, said Hymes originally had come to him with a proposal to furlough the attorneys' salaries by one day per two-week pay period.
The idea would have saved the county an estimated $210,000, although Ecker said he turned down the plan since it appeared that his county-wide layoffs would meet the budget demands.
However, no guarantees can be made to the state's attorney's officeor any other department, he said.
"With the state of the economy being the way it is, we may have to do something more if the financial picture gets any worse," Ecker said.
Shapiro said he came to Howard County with the hope of becoming a career prosecutor.
Earlier this year, he was awarded a scholarship to the Maryland State's Attorney's Association's Career Prosecutor's School.
In an April 10 letter to the state's attorney's association, he turned the offer down, stating: "I realize that I am passing up an opportunity of a lifetime. . . (but) committing to remain employed as a state-level prosecutor for the next 18 months for me is a near impossibility."
A. Gallatin Warfield III, who left the county state's attorney's office in 1989 after 13 years, said, "It's hard to lose qualified people, but thepublic should not look at this in shock.
"The prosecutor's officeis not a place you stay for 30 years," said Warfield, who is now an Ellicott City lawyer. "Sooner or later, economics catches up to your idealism."