County Attorney Tommy Craig attempted to soothe public concerns over the county’s high legal costs Tuesday night, but his explanation appeared to provoke the opposite reaction.
Craig was responding to critical citizen comments about a proposed $800,000 cap on his services, a nearly 100% increase to the current legal budget.
“In an effort to balance the budget year after year, and maintain the millage at acceptable levels, there would be a final adjustment in the attorney’s budget where the amount allocated declined every year, irrespective of the amount that had been spent the year before,” Craig said.
“The same thing was done at the landfill, there were other departments that were done that way, then there would be cost overruns, and those cost overruns would be paid out of the county’s reserves,” he continued. “I didn’t invent the system, that’s the way the budget was balanced through earlier administrations.”
Citizen Wesley Dowdy confronted Craig about his comments, asking the county attorney to clarify his statement.
“The budget for the county attorney’s department was not based on actual experience, it was based on how much money could be put into that line item and the budget still balance for the purpose of setting the tax digest,” Craig said. “[The legal budget] jumps all around based on what the county needs to do, what the county manager needs to do, to balance the county budget, so what was left in my line item had nothing to do with the anticipated expenditures for legal fees.”
“Surely to God that’s not what y’all are doing,” Dowdy said, addressing the board as the audience erupted in laughter. “In all seriousness, please tell me…I’m a business owner I wouldn’t do that in my business.”
“The board did not participate in that,” Craig interrupted. “I don’t think the board even understood that that was happening, but it did happen.”
“It happened in every budget for the past five years,” Craig added.
“Can you not see that that makes absolutely no sense?” Dowdy said, addressing the board once more. “Surely to God you would not think that that’s rational. If you do, you do not deserve to be in your seats.”
Earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Nancy Schulz praised the downward trend in legal expenses for April, noting that the county had gone from spending between $80,000 and $90,000 a month to $55,500 for April.
"I'm actually encouraged by the trend I see in legal services," she said. "That being said, we still have a ways to go."
She noted that 55 hours had been billed for work related to commissioners and staff, but that the invoices lacked the detail necessary for the county to begin addressing the issue.