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Posted: March 8, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Resident questions county attorney fees

Newton pays more than $750,000 in legal fees in 2008

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Resident Bobby Sigman believes Newton County should look into hiring an in-house county attorney to save money during these difficult economic times, but the county leadership is confident Tommy Craig is the right choice.

 

During the public comments section of Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Sigman presented a thick binder filled with nearly every phone call, meeting, reading of a legal document and court case handled by County Attorney Tommy Craig during 2008. The binder was obtained through an open records request and cost Sigman $284, he said.

 

“I’m not here witch-hunting and I’m not here anti-Tommy Craig,” Sigman said Tuesday “I’m trying to shine some light on the legal system. I’ve heard rumors (of the county attorney) costing $1.5 million to $2 million and I wanted to find out the truth.”

 

Sigman calculated the total cost of the county’s legal work to be around $750,000, including work done by firms other than Craig’s. Although this amount was less than rumored, Sigman said it was still more than an in-house county law firm would cost.

 

“You want to talk about how to save money?” Sigman asked the commissioners. “Cut out that $750,000 that’s spent on legal service. Stop calling him (Craig) and asking him stupid questions. It’s not his fault (for charging you), it’s your fault for letting it be done.”

 

Sigman said he spoke to the Georgia county commissioners association’s legal department and friends of his in the legal field and they estimated that an in-house firm would cost $250,000 to $150,000 for a quality attorney, $50,000 for a legal secretary and $50,000 for operating expenses.

 

“The way the system is working now is broke,” Sigman said Thursday. “The system is farming out the legal work; there is a better way to do it. Look at it [an in-house attorney]. Try it. If it doesn’t work after a couple of years, you could go back.”

 

Craig later said that, in his experience, top-level representation would cost more than $150,000 a year.­­

 

Rockdale County recently completed a study of the 2008 legal fees of selected counties in Georgia. According to the study, most counties used contracted county attorneys, and most county attorneys charged between $125 and $175 per hour. Craig charges the county $195 per hour and his associates charge $150 per hour.

 

In terms of total legal fees, Rockdale County, which is smaller both in population and county size, incurred around $485,000. Douglas County, which had an estimated 2007 population of 124,495, incurred around $1 million in legal fees. According to the study, Fayette County, with an estimated 2007 population of 106,144, had an in-house legal service, but was still charged on an hourly basis and had 2008 legal fees of around $600,000. Other counties in the study were not comparable to Newton County in size or location. The study did not attempt to measure the quality of legal service.

 

County Chairman Kathy Morgan said on Wednesday that the board both knew and was comfortable with the cost of having Craig as county attorney. Morgan said the county attorney was an important position in both preventing and winning legal cases.

 

According to Morgan a single in-house attorney would not be ideal because Craig’s office often has multiple lawyers simultaneously working on county matters and losing even a single court case could easily turn any savings into a large deficit.

 

In a phone call on Friday, Craig pointed out that millions of dollars can be at stake in a single lawsuit. For example, in December 2005, the Newton County Home Builders Association filed a $6.5 million lawsuit against Newton County over the legality of impact fees. The county won the suit and retained a large chunk of its budget.

 

“We have some of the best lawyers in Georgia who sue us,” Craig said. “People want to win, because there is a lot of money at stake. (For example) developers have millions of dollars at stake. If litigation goes his way, he gets to develop that land anyway he sees fit. The amount of risk the county has exposure to is extremely large. We don’t want the cheapest attorney any more than we want the cheapest surgeon.”

 

Morgan pointed out that experts say legal fees should be between 0.75 percent and 2 percent of a county’s budget. With a $50 million budget, $58 million in special local option sales tax projects and other funds and projects, the county’s overall budget is around $130 million a year, Morgan said, placing the current legal fees well below the 2 percent mark.

 

In addition, Craig offers his services to the county at half price. Craig normally charges $385 per hour for legal work, but as mentioned earlier he charges the county $195 an hour. His associates work for the county at a similarly discounted price.

 

Craig has been county attorney for 33 years and has been a member of several state attorney groups during this time. He said that in his experience, a county with as much legal work as Newton would not be best served by a single or even a couple of in-house attorneys.

 

“We have broader capabilities than most law firms,” Craig said. “You see the work we’ve done on environmental projects, on landfill and water projects. In most communities that work is not done by the county attorney [it must be contracted out].

 

“We don’t believe that we have to defend the quality of our work,” he said. “Nobody attacked our credibility the other night; it’s really just politics. The county commissioners who have been here over the years have experience with the quality of our representation. We are extremely proud of the record we’ve established the years. There’s not another record out there that would match ours.”

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