Sigman urges county to reduce legal fees

COVINGTON - With the county being forced to cut costs wherever possible to make up a budget shortfall, a resident urged the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night to reduce legal expenses.

During the citizen comments portion of the board's regular meeting, resident Bobby Sigman approached the speaker's podium with a book containing some 1,200 pages of legal invoices incurred by the county in 2008.

Sigman, who said he paid about $284 for the documents, obtained through an open records request, implored commissioners to be aware of what they're spending for legal services, which he calculated to be about $750,000.

According to a billing summary provided to the Newton Citizen by the County Attorney's Office, the county actually spent $781,561.51 on legal fees in 2008.

"I am not here witch-hunting, and I'm not here anti-Tommy Craig," Sigman said, referring to the county attorney. "I'm here to try to shed some light on our legal system."

Sigman recommended the county hire an in-house attorney to save money. He said the county could pay a base salary for the attorney, a secretary and, adding in the overhead of maintaining an in-house office and additional costs for litigation expenses, could still save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

"It's just astounding what you have spent money on without questioning it. You need to question where the money is being spent," he said.

Sigman said commissioners need to keep better track of their own calls to the attorney.

"Every time you call Mr. Craig, it costs the county money. The clock starts. I don't blame him. That's what he's supposed to do," he said, adding that he just wanted to give the board "something to think about."

The billing summary provided by the County Attorney's Office, which was handed out to commissioners at a retreat in January, includes a breakdown of legal fees for various departments, as well as litigation and fees charged by outside attorneys.

The summary shows the Board of Commissioners generated $120,033.55 in legal fees in 2008, which included legal research and opinions at the request of the chairman or commissioners; work on behalf of the purchasing department, the Board of Elections and the Recreation Commission; and open records request responses.

Projects generating the most fees included the Bear Creek Reservoir at $83,965.60 and the proposed civic center at $39,927.75. The county spent about $100,000 in legal fees related to right of way and land acquisition.

In addition, more than $146,000 was spent on litigation. All told, $691,740.14 was billed by the County Attorney's Office.

The billing rate is $195 per hour for work done by Craig and $150 per hour for associates.

The county also pays a $1,000-per-month retainer fee.

The county also spent nearly $90,000 for outside attorneys who assisted with litigation, appeals, an annexation objection and other matters.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said steps are already being taken to reduce legal costs. Since taking office in January, Morgan said she has implemented a new policy requiring department heads and employees to get clearance from her or Administrative Officer John Middleton before calling the county attorney.

Morgan said she is consulted before an outside attorney is hired.

"It's not something where Tommy's willy-nilly hiring attorneys. We sit down and discuss a strategy to handle the situation and choose the attorney we want to choose. If it's something where we need a heavy hitter, we bring in a larger firm," she said.

Those outside firms are usually hired at a reduced rate, she said, and added that Craig also charges a reduced rate.

Morgan said legal fees should typically run between .75 and 2 percent of the annual budget.

When considering the county's roughly $50 million budget, plus the $58 million in special purpose local option sales tax projects, impact fees and the water and fire fund, all of which may require some legal work, the total budget is between $100 million and $130 million, she said, putting legal fees below that threshold.

"I think for the service we get, we pay a fair rate," she said.

With Craig's office comes the benefit of five or six attorneys working on the county's behalf on legal matters from lawsuits to contracts to bond deals to ordinances, Morgan said. Hiring an attorney in-house would leave one person to do all that work, she said.

While being mindful of the cost to the county, it's also important that commissioners and staff be able to ask questions of the attorney up front that could prevent a future lawsuit, she added.

That being said, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz noted that following the January retreat, commissioners were asked to be more prudent in their use of the attorney.

"I get a sense everybody is more cognizant of how and when and why we use the county attorney," she said.

The recent round of cuts that trimmed the budget by $5 million included looking at ways to reduce legal fees, she said. For example, attorneys were taking minutes at some committee and board meetings, which is unnecessary, she said.

Schulz added that going into fiscal year 2010, the county is going to have to look at cutting even more expenses in every department, including legal.

Commissioners approve county checks at each board meeting, but don't get a copy of every invoice; however, commissioners have access to the invoices whenever they request, Schulz said.

She said the task of the board is to reduce costs without leaving the county without adequate legal representation.

"I have no questions about (Craig's) competence. He is a brilliant man. He provides the county with a good service. We have to be careful we don't abuse that at the taxpayer's expense," she said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.