The Board of Commissioners began discussing ways to rein in legal fees at Wednesday night’s budget meeting, hearing recommendations from County Manager Tom Garrett and a proposal for in house legal services from Commissioner Nancy Schulz.
The county’ s legal fees have been a source of contention on the board, as a recent report by The News found that the county is on track to spend $11 per capita, while the surrounding counties of Rockdale, Henry and Walton spend between $1.65 and $5.30, based on FY14 expenditure.
Garrett presented his suggestions, which included developing a scope of work for standard legal services, issuing purchase orders, and requiring each department to review its own legal services.
Garrett also recommended instituting a “gatekeeper” policy for requests for legal services that would go through the BOC or chairman, constitutional officers, or county manager.
Lastly, Garrett emphasized that attracting and retaining qualified staff is key improving the operations of the county, and making departments less dependent on legal assistance.
“A lot of that [legal] expense is supplementing expertise,” Garrett said.
Garrett’s suggestions were welcomed by the board, with Commissioner Levie Maddox calling the reforms “past due.”
Commissioner Nancy Schulz then distributed a financial assessment of potential savings if the county were to hire an in house attorney, provoking an immediate negative response from Commissioner John Douglas.
“Only 10 counties in Georgia have an in house attorney,” Douglas interrupted as Schulz passed out the assessment. “Why is it that 149 counties don’t do that?”
Schulz responded that it was an “option” the county should explore, pointing out that the county is currently paying the equivalent of $2.5 full time attorneys.
According to Schulz’s assessment, hiring a county attorney for $230,829 and leaving a budget of $269,104 for outside counsel for a total FY16 budget of $500,000 would save the county 138 percent, or $689,020 compared with projected FY15 actuals of $1,189,020.
The proposed $800,000 cap proposed by Commissioners Douglas, Levie Maddox, and Chairman Keith Ellis represents a savings of 49 percent, according to the same calculations.