Thursday September 20, 2012

KEENE, N.H. -- Cheshire County officials were forced to cut a victim/witness coordinator position earlier this year due to budgetary cuts across the county.

Various people within the county government, including County Project Manager Rod Bouchard, said the delegation passed its annual budget in March and required each department to make reductions of $45,000. County Attorney Peter Heed decided to make his cut where he believed the blow would hurt the least, which he felt was to one of the victim/witness coordinators.

The number of positions went from three to two.

Heed said victim/witness coordinators work with people that have been victims of or witnesses to crimes and help them understand the legal system. He said they make sure the individuals' rights are not violated and now spend of their time involved with felony court cases because those are the most serious.

Heed said it was a cut he had to make.

"It was obviously difficult but we're doing the best we can," he said. "We lost 33 percent of (the coordinators)."

He said he would like to bring the position back as soon as the budget allows for it, and has not heard that the cut has had any affect on job quality.

John Pratt, chairman of the County Commissioners, also said he has not been made aware of any problems caused by the cut.

John Hunt, the chairman of the Executive Committee of Cheshire County, said he doesn't see why the elimination of one job would be detrimental, as for many years there were no victim/witness coordinators at all.

"It's a case of the government looking for ways to spend money," he said.

He said he and his fellow Republicans would rather have seen the Alternative Sentencing Program and Mental Health Court alternative sentencing program cut completely. According to the Cheshire County website, the program serves the local criminal justice system and the community by providing bail monitoring and disposition options for cases involving individuals diagnosed with substance use or mental health disorders.

He said getting rid of the program would save $350,000 a year.

Hunt also said the county's budget is tighter because of the declining enrollment at Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland and the unnecessarily large size of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections. Both the nursing home and correctional facility are county departments.

Last month, a local woman posted a link to Congressman Charlie Bass' website on the Reformer's Facebook page. She urged people to e-mail the congressman and ask for his support on the matter.

"Why would we victimize victims instead of helping them to become survivors," Cher Caldwell Lahue wrote. "I can think of several ways to cut budget costs instead of cutting a very needed position in our county."

Judy Rex, the executive director of The Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services for the past 11 years, said Vermont's Windham County has victim/witness advocates, though they don't all work full-time. She said there was a threat of cuts during the 2008 banking crisis but U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was able to secure some funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to keep the program level-funded.

She said any cuts to victims services would be unfortunate.

Rex said funding for the program is generated through surcharges on traffic tickets and criminal fines.

Bouchard said the job cut has increased the workload of the two remaining victim/witness coordinators, but he has not heard any complaints from taxpayers.

State Rep. Tara Sad, D-Walpole, said she was initially under the impression the entire program would be eliminated and she was relieved it wasn't.

"I personally think it's a very valuable program," she said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.