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When Rick Peo took a job in the city attorney's office Helen Boosalis was mayor and attorneys did their legal research using books. The internet hadn't been invented. 

Almost 39 years later Peo is still with the city attorney’s office, working as the chief assistant city attorney for the civil division and the attorney with the longest service with local government.

Peo, who did most of the legal work for the Pinnacle Bank Arena redevelopment project and handles much of the planning and zoning work for the city, has worked for six city attorneys and eight mayors.

Peo's long employment history isn't unusual in the city attorney’s office, where more than half of the attorneys started work before the turn of the century and 14 out of 16 make more than $100,000.

It's a different story in the county attorney and public defender offices, where far fewer attorneys make six-digit salaries. 

Fewer than one-fourth of the 33 attorneys working for Lancaster County and about 30 percent of the county's 23 public defenders make over $100,000.

In general, attorneys with the city are the highest paid compared to either the county attorney's office or the county public defender’s office, based on city and county salary data. 

But that higher pay is linked to longevity, based on personnel data.

Around half of the attorneys working for the county attorney and public defender offices are fairly new, hired since 2010.

But the city attorney's office has hired just three people in those seven years, including City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick. And all three came with many years of experience.

Both County Attorney Joe Kelly and Public Defender Joe Nigro agree there is at least a perception, if not reality, that city attorneys make more than those who work for the two county agencies.

In general there is a pecking order, said Nigro. Attorneys working for the state are the lowest paid. County attorneys make more. City attorneys make more than county attorneys and federal attorneys make the most, said Nigro.

Kirkpatrick said he was recently able to hire an attorney for the city, with a ton of experience, because she had been working for the state at a lower salary. "A steal,” he called that hire.

The top paid attorneys in local government are the two county elected officials -- Nigro and Kelly -- whose $148,483 annual salaries are set by the Lancaster County Board. Their chief deputies make a percentage of that salary.

The other deputy county attorneys and public defenders are paid on a step schedule for beginning attorneys and with merit increases for more veteran attorneys. This common system makes salaries between these two county departments very comparable.

Several years ago Kelly and former Public Defender Dennis Keefe, concerned about attracting and keeping good people, worked out the step system, which took much of the office politics out of salaries, Nigro said.

“When people come here they know they are not going to get rich,” said Nigro, whose staff defends people accused of crimes but who can’t afford their own attorney.

“But we try to make sure it is competitive enough that people interested in public service stick with us,” he said.

Plus these are good jobs, with good insurance benefits, particularly compared to what an attorney who is self-employed pays for their health insurance, Kelly said.

Though the county does not have a defined benefit retirement plan, the retirement benefit -- similar to a 401(k) in the private sector -- is good, he said. 

But the turnover rate at the two county offices is high -- around 50 percent over the past seven years -- and the salary probably isn’t at the level that will keep people with six to eight years of experience, Kelly said.

In those seven years Kelly has had two people retire and the rest left for other jobs, including six who became judges. It’s not unusual for a high number of judges to have been prosecutors, said Kelly. "But six in six years -- that’s a big number," he said.

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One of the private complaints of some attorneys who prosecute criminal cases for the county attorney’s office is that the magnitude of the criminal cases is not reflected in the pay system.

Veteran city prosecutors, who handle traffic tickets, and misdemeanor crimes, like disturbing the peace and assault cases, earn more than county attorneys prosecuting more serious felony cases, simply because the pay rates are based primarily on years of experience.

That is part of the system, according to the three top attorneys.

“These are choices we all make, about where we are going to work,” Kelly said about the debate.

But there is a need to pay well enough to keep people with the experience who will litigate the high level cases, he said.

Lincoln’s city attorney's office compares itself with the Omaha city attorney’s office, and it measures up very well, said Kirkpatrick.

City prosecutors each handle more than 5,200 cases a year and have a 98 percent conviction rate, he said.

County prosecutors may think they are underpaid based on the kinds of cases they are handling, but "part of the benefit package of county attorneys is you get to be a judge at some point," said Kirkpatrick, only partially in jest.

“The bench is populated with former county attorneys,” he said.

Pay is something the County Board, which sets department budgets, should look at, said Nigro.

“I don’t think city attorneys are overpaid,” he said. So the county should look at whether it is paying enough.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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