Nik Buckmeier is living his dream as an assistant prosecutor with Summit County.
He loves fighting for victims and justice, and can’t imagine doing any other kind of work.
He just wishes his dream job paid a bit more.
After nearly five years as an assistant prosecutor in Medina and Summit counties, Buckmeier makes $50,980 a year — a salary that has kept him driving a 12-year-old Buick LeSabre and questioning how he can pay hefty loans for law school.
“People do leave prosecutors’ offices and one of the main reasons they do is for more money,” Buckmeier, 32, said.
Within the last two years, Summit County has seen 16 assistant prosecutors leave. Most left for jobs that paid more. With a starting salary of $44,000 and the lure of higher pay elsewhere, it’s no surprise, officials say.
Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, who has complained for years about the pay issue, handed out $64,000 worth of raises this year to 16 assistant prosecutors, including a nearly $6,000 increase for Buckmeier. She said she targeted lower-paid assistants.
Fourteen of them were making less than $50,000 and the other two were making just over that. Assistants Joseph Fantozzi and Elliot Kolkovich received the biggest raises, $8,673 and $8,153, respectively.
The raises come as county union workers are being asked to accept no increases in their contracts, and most nonunion workers haven’t had raises for years.
Walsh said the county was able to bill some of its work through Children Services to the federal government and that freed up cash for the pay increases.
“My job is to do what I can as the county prosecutor to ensure that my employees, particularly in this case my assistant prosecutors, are being paid a fair salary,” said Walsh, whose annual salary is $118,512. “Even with these raises, their salaries are so much lower than your typical attorney would make.”
Incentive to leave
Pay is a common complaint among younger assistant prosecutors, many of whom use the jobs as a steppingstone within the legal profession. Meanwhile, their bosses often complain about how difficult it is to keep dedicated workers when they can make double or triple the money in the private sector, or earn more working for the government in a different capacity.
It’s always been that way, said Dennis Will, president of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and prosecutor in Lorain County.
“They leave and it’s not because they don’t like their job,” Will said. “It’s because they have a family and they can go out and make more money.”
Through the years, prosecutors were able to bump up salaries a little here and there, he said, but the recession and government cuts changed that.
“The money is just not there,” Will said. “I doubt that it will ever be.”
The overall starting median salary for all new attorneys last year was $60,000, while the median starting salary at a law firm was $85,000, according to the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C. New assistant prosecutors, obviously, are pulling that median figure down.
It may seem silly to some to complain about a starting salary of $44,000 when the median household income in Summit County was $45,768 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But within the legal profession — and when you consider that some county secretaries make more than that — it’s a pittance.
“Every so often, someone asks how overpaid we are and we say the dog catcher is better paid than we are,” said Ross Rhodes, chief assistant prosecutor of the civil division at the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office. “Public service has certain rewards but oodles of money isn’t one of them.”
Law school loans
Assistant prosecutors who stick with the career don’t do it for the money, although the government benefits don’t hurt. They work many hours, especially when they are preparing for trial, and many deal with horrific crimes and emotional victims. Most also come into the job with financial baggage — giant law school loans that hinder their ability to buy fancy cars, take pricey vacations or even have a family.
Buckmeier, who is single but has a young daughter, is one of the lucky ones when it comes to student loans. He attended Eastern Michigan University on a football scholarship, so he has no undergraduate bills. He declined to say how much he owes for his law degree from the University of Akron School of Law, but said he knows others who owe $150,000 to $180,000 in combined undergraduate and law school loans.
He has been permitted not to pay his loans yet because of his salary.
“With this raise, I’ll start paying,” Buckmeier said. “When I was making $40,000 in Medina, I couldn’t pay it.”
He said he has a friend who went directly to a large law firm after graduation and immediately made six figures.
“He earned every penny,” he said.
Asked whether he was jealous, he responded with a chuckle: “A little bit, yeah. It’s always nice to make more money.”
But he said he loves being a prosecutor, especially the thrill of persuading a jury or judge to side with him. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
“The work we do is very important,” Buckmeier said. “To get up every day, Monday through Friday, and fight for the truth and fight on behalf of victims of crime and represent the people of the state of Ohio, it’s a really good feeling when you do it well.
“I will never leave being a prosecutor if I have a choice in it. I love it. … I couldn’t go to the private sector for more money.”
Some friends, though, find it hard to believe he’s not pulling in a bigger paycheck.
“They ask me why I do it,” he said. “And they all say the point of going to law school is to make a lot of money. ‘You’re not making a lot of money. What are you doing?’ I just laugh.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.