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County lawyers see 13% raise
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Newton County’s legal fees continue to soar above budget, as commissioners approved more than $83,000 in payments to longtime County Attorney Tommy Craig’s firm for the month of February alone.

According to the most recent financial report, the General Fund has reached 120.7% of its legal budget, just more than halfway through the fiscal year.

Craig dismissed budgetary limits at a public Board of Commissioners meeting last month, comparing the county’s legal defense to being “at war.” According to the county’s finance department, Craig has increased his rates and those of the attorneys working at his firm by 13% since FY2013. Senior county employees received between 1 and 2 percent raises for FY2015 after several years of stagnation.

None of the commissioners that could be reached said they were aware that Craig has increased his rates. The county does not have any written contract with Craig that would include hourly rates.

Commissioner John Douglas, who has pinned his fiscal conservative credentials to a strong anti-tax stance, offered “no comment” on Craig’s raise. Craig contributed $2,000 to Douglas’ state Senate reelection campaign in 2008, public records show.

Neither Commissioner Lanier Sims nor Chairman Keith Ellis returned e-mails and phone calls for comment.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson said Craig’s rates were within the range of other local attorneys.

Commissioner Levie Maddox wrote in an e-mail that the increase in Craig’s fees “is an item that I’d have to look at a bit further to really comment on.”

“We must get a handle on our overall expenses in EVERY area, that absolutely includes legal,” he wrote. “This has to be done with a rational approach however; as we cannot just drop the things we are making progress on.”

Commissioner Nancy Schulz confirmed that Craig’s rates were never discussed during his successive reappointments, and expressed frustration with the current approval process.

“If we’re going to spend $23,000 of taxpayer money, there needs to be authorization on the front end,” said Schulz, referring to one invoice in particular that covered three days of work, including a trip to Savannah by two of Craig’s attorneys.

“I just don’t appreciate looking through a check registry and finding out the information after it’s been done, and as a sitting commissioner not having been involved in the decision making process,” the commissioner said.

Schulz is preparing to hold a committee meeting next week to discuss tightening the language of the personal services section of the county purchasing policy, which would affect how the county engages legal services.

“There is no scope of work and no formal budget proposal for rates or cost of work performed,” she said of the relationship between the board and the county attorney.

“That is one of the reasons I want this purchasing policy to address that,” she continued. “Any time we are expending any money, even for professional services, we need to have a scope of work and rates identified and a proposal on how much it’s going to cost us.”

A report by The News found that Craig’s invoices were approved by the county manager with little or no oversight by elected officials.

“The checks would have my signature on them, but I would not have seen those invoices,” Chairman Ellis said at the time.

According to the finance department, the rates of Craig and Jenny Carter went from $195 per hour in FY2013 to $220.95 per hour in FY2015, while the rates of Banks Craig, Andrea Gray and Lara Benz went from $150 per hour in FY2013 to $169.95 per hour in FY2015.

On February 17, Craig brushed off concerns that the county was already over its legal budget, saying “We don’t have any way to predict on the front end what the [costs] are going to be.”

“It costs what it costs,” he said. “Sorry if we’ve exceeded the budget, but I’m not going to apologize.”

Craig’s firm billed the county more than $1.1 million for the 2014 calendar year while he owes millions in federal income tax and penalties.

The board of commissioners was supposed to discuss the county’s legal fees, among other pressing issues, at its annual retreat, which was scheduled for January but cancelled at the last minute due to concerns over inclement weather.

The purchasing policy committee meeting will be held Tuesday, March 24 at 8:30 a.m. on the second floor of the county administration building.