County supervisors have dramatically cut back proposed increases in the Office of Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj—and frozen all increases until she signs an agreement with the county extending Loudoun’s personnel, procurement, payroll and human resources systems to the office.
Although Biberaj, as a constitutional officer, is an elected official who does not answer to the Board of Supervisors, the majority of her office’s budget comes from the board. Biberaj, who began her first term in January 2020, has been pushing for increases in staffing since partway through the year, and County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget included 12 new positions and more than $1.6 million in additional funding and for the office.
But county supervisors pared that back by eight positions and $1.1 million after two sometimes-contentious exchanges during budget work sessions. And Biberaj will get none of the remaining increase until she signs the cooperative agreement common to constitutional officers, extending services like payroll and procurement to the office and county human resources policies to its employees.
Supervisors said they were concerned by high turnover and a drop in domestic violence prosecutions in the office. Biberaj said she inherited an office that was dramatically underfunded, with a long backlog of work to do and a “cookie cutter” approach to prosecution.
“When you look at what we impact in the community, it is people’s safety, it is their mental health, it’s their stability, it’s their ability to be able to be an integral part of our community,” Biberaj said during the March 18 budget work session. “We take the most serious cases and we do go to court, and we prosecute, because that’s what we should do, and be able to incarcerate people. But we are no longer defaulting to that, because that was easy. It was easy to go to court in an hour and a half and prosecute somebody and send them to jail. We don’t.”
She argued many domestic violence charges are not as serious as the term sounds, and that law enforcement officers are required to make a charge if they go to a domestic violence call—”it is not uncommon for us to be in court and the officer says, ‘I’m sorry, I did not want to bring this forward, but that’s what I’m obligated to do.’ So, we’re stuck making the very tough decisions.”
And with supervisors pointing to a reported 17 staff departures in the 13 months of her administration from among 39 total positions, she said turnover is due to COVID-19 and the new prosecutorial philosophy she was elected to bring to the office.
“That is a staggering turmoil in the office, and a stagging bad hire rate, and a staggering turnover rate,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn).
“In essence, what we have done is we have built a whole new law firm,” Biberaj said. “People are trying to get their footing, they’re trying to get stabilized, they’re trying to figure out where they fit, and it is a very high demand on them when we’re trying to build this on top of having a heavy caseload.”
But, said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), the difference is not simply a change in philosophy. She said she has letters from domestic violence victims.
“I have also talked to [the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Disability Services], I talked to Family Services, I talked to our nonprofits—especially LAWS, the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter—and the things that I am hearing do not comport with what you are saying, especially when it comes to domestic violence, abuse, and partner abuse,” Randall said. “In fact, the things that I am hearing, the letters I have, the emails I have, the text message screenshots I have would curl somebody’s toes to look at them.”
Supervisors also questioned how Biberaj could evaluate her office’s staffing needs when it has never been fully staffed.
“The office hasn’t even been fully staffed, really, and we’ve been operating in this weird environment, so quite honestly I don’t know how you could evaluate what your needs are without being relatively fully staffed, which you really haven’t been at any point since you’ve been in office,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
Randall led the push to cut back those increases and to freeze all increases until Biberaj signs the cooperative agreement. The department has not been operating without them; Hemstreet has been extending those services to the office on an ad hoc basis without an agreement.
Supervisors on March 18 voted 8-0-1 for all of those cuts and the freeze, Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) absent.