Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement confirming the correct starting salary for prosecutors in Fort Bend County.

Harris County commissioners approved the allocation of federal pandemic relief money to fund prosecutor positions at the district attorney’s office at their April 5 meeting after hearing an update on the county’s criminal court case backlog—which consists of 24,000 misdemeanor cases more than six months old and 18,000 felony cases more than one year old, officials said.

About $7.5 million will cover additional prosecutors and salary increases for existing prosecutors. District attorney’s office officials said they need to be fully staffed to retain prosecutors and continue chipping away at the backlog.

While the district attorney’s office budget has increased by $12 million over the last two years, Chief of Staff Vivian King said 50 previously approved positions were not funded before the April 5 vote and would have put the office at a $6 million deficit.

“Each position we're filling, we're going farther and farther into the red, and it's a very difficult position for us to be in in HR,” said Elizabeth Stevens, human resources director for the district attorney’s office. “The other thing that you have to know is that not fully filling our positions is having a tremendously negative effect on our prosecutors. They're being asked to do the impossible right now as it is, which is to handle a completely unsustainable and unmanageable caseload.”

King said the department has had prosecutors leave due to high demands and low pay when they could be making more working for other counties.

“We were losing baby prosecutors after training them for six months to Montgomery County because they can make $78,000; Fort Bend [County offers] $72,000. We were at [$66,000],” she said.

Fort Bend County Executive Assistant District Attorney Wesley Wittig confirmed in an April 7 email to Community Impact Newspaper the starting salary for their prosecutors is $66,000, not $72,000.

Commissioners approved the county’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget in February, which included salary increases and overtime pay for the district attorney’s office and set the starting salary for prosecutors at $87,000.

David Berry, Harris County administrator and budget officer, said using the federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars made available to the county made sense because the county could avoid budget cuts in other areas, such as public health and violence prevention initiatives.

“And it's also, I think, the right source of funding because there is a very direct link between COVID[-19] and the backlog. I think this is exactly the kind of investment that the federal government had in mind when they sent us $900 million to help address the impacts of COVID[-19],” Berry said.

The funding was approved in a 4-0 vote with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo abstaining. She said she believed the issue was already being resolved and would have been resolved with or without the motion. She noted funding for law enforcement countywide has increased over time and is the highest it has ever been.

In a statement, District Attorney Kim Ogg thanked commissioners for approving the funding of open positions as well as providing all new prosecutors with a starting salary of $87,000 to keep the department competitive.

“This vote was crucial to our role in keeping the public safe,” Ogg said. “The county must adequately fund prosecutors and police. Defunding puts the community at risk.”