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County's legal fees continue to create controversy
Historic Courthouse on Square

Among the controversies facing the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) throughout the past few years, one of the most divisive seems to behas been the debate concerning legal fees .

The county attorney’s office, the W. T. Craig Law Firm, has been paid more than $1 million for legal fees in the fiscal years of 2014 and 2015, according to county records.

According to records obtained from the county’s finance department, during the first quarter of the FY2016, which ended Oct. 1, the county has spent $317,000 on legal fees, which were budgeted at $577,800 for the entire year. This figure includes $78,000 for law enforcement, $25,000 for water fund, $20,000 for solid waste, and legal services for all other departments.

Commissioners have recently questioned the spending.. For months, Commissioner Nancy Schulz, District 3, has refused to approve the county’s check register, a largely symbolic gesture. She has recently been joined in her protest by Commissioner John Douglas, District 1.

“I’m boycotting it because two commissioners, back in May, promised we were going to get a scope of work [for the attorney],” Schulz said. “I just believe, after looking at all these legal fees, we need to have defined exactly why we’re spending money, what our expectations are, and what we are going to achieve by spending this money.
“We don’t have any of that,” she said. “We have it for our auditors, for everyone else. Why don’t we have it for legal services? Especially if we’re spending a million dollars.”

At the last BOC meeting, Nov. 3, Schulz questioned the amount that had already been spent on legal fees for July 1 through Oct. 31.

“We’ve spent over 50 percent and it’s not even halfway through the year.”

The board itself has also spent more than half of its budgeted amount of legal fees for the period of July 2015 through June 2016. It set a budget for itself of $363,000, of which $182,994.45 has been spent.

However, earlier in the year, County Chair Keith Ellis, District 1 Commissioner John Douglas, District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox and Craig met and set an $800,000 cap on legal spending. Using that figure, the legal fees are on track, with the total at approximately 25 percent of the overall budget, and 28 percent of the BOC’s budget a quarter of the way through the fiscal year.

“I’m not sure why there is a discrepancy there; I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Craig said. “That number [the $577,800] was inserted during the budgeting process.”

“The $800,000 was developed in spring of 2015 with the mindset that it is a 50 percent reduction in costs from the last two fiscal years,” said Maddox. “I believe the spike during those two years [2014 and 2015] is from several areas.”

Maddox said those areas included attempts to gain traction and success on long term projects, such as the solid waste model and the Bear Creek Water Supply Reservoir permit; several large lawsuits that were not expected; review and development of land use plan and ordinances, including the Brick Store Overlay and the now defunct 2050 plan; and key employee turnover.

Ellis said the county attorney had agreed that anything spent above $800,000 would be pro bono, or work done for free.
But Craig said when the commissioners asked if a target for reducing legal fees could be set, everyone agreed to the $800,000 unless there was something extraordinary and unexpected that came up.

“The amount we were over the first quarter — our target was $200,000 and our charges were $213,000. During that time, we had some things come up, like an arrest warrant [sworn out] for the Chair.

“Otherwise, we’ll stay under the $800,000 figure fiscal year,” he said.

“If we go to $800,000, there’s going to have to be a budget amendment,” Schulz said. “We’re going to have to find [the money] somewhere. The budget approved did not include that amount in it.”

Ellis said the $222,200 different between the cap and the budgeted amount will come out of the reserves. “It could be for any department,” he said. “The landfill will have a terrible shortfall this year.”

Complications and oversimplification

The W. T. Craig Law Firm, which has been the county attorney for nearly 40 years, employs three full-time lawyers—W. T. “Tommy” Craig, Jenny Carter, and Emory Banks Craig – and an office manager/paralegal.

Currently, Tommy Craig and Carter earn $220.94 an hour, while Emory Craig, who, according to invoices for the first quarter of the fiscal years, does research for the county, earns $169.69, according to the W.T. Craig Law Firm.

Ellis points out that the hourly rate charged by the law firm is on the low end of the scale.

Recent attention from the media and criticism seems to blame Craig for the county’s legal bill, but that’s oversimplifying the matter, according to Commissioner Levie Maddox, District 5. “While the county legal fees are high, the vendor provided quality work in the areas that they were asked to apply their time and resources. The Board should take responsibility for the high costs, not the Craig firm.”

Schulz agreed. “If you look at what we’re spending on legal services, you really need to look at our policies. We’ve been making substantive changes in the last two years. I believe we have very good department heads, we have a really good interim county manager and our organization structure has been improving.

“The problem is over the years there’s become a culture where departments would go to the county attorney’s office for advice, and that’s billed,” she said.

Complicating the issue is that the Craig firm serves as the county attorney, and Craig, himself, serves as the project manager for the now-suspended Bear Creek Water Supply Reservoir project. When asked, Craig said, “I’ve done a lot of project management for other communities. There are some projects we were working on [as part of Bear Creek] — land acquisitions, for example — that do require legal services.

“When I sit down and organize the project and prioritize the sequence that’s needed to be performed, that’s part of the expertise we have,” he said. “Sometimes, I might be performing scheduling activities. That’s part of project management.

“We have not performed any services that we were not asked to provide,” Craig said. “We have done an excellent job with the tasks that were assigned to us. We have not charged the county for any time that we didn’t expend.

“Our services are priced on the bottom of the scale and very reasonable, particularly given the experience we have,” he said.

Schulz said that only $25,000 had been budgeted for legal fees for Bear Creek. “We have to be really careful how we utilize our county attorney. What are our overall objectives and then [we need to] determine if there are professionals [on staff] that can do that work. Do we really need to turn everything over to the county attorney?

“That’s part of the problem, we’ve let the county attorney do a lot of the work that staff could do,” she said.
Creating a scope of work

At the Nov. 3 BOC meeting, Maddox offered to spearhead a group working on a scope of work for the county attorney, something Schulz has long been requesting.

Schulz said she hoped that the county manager and finance department would work with the board and “provide a working draft of what the scope of work should be. Then we [the board] can work to finalize it. I hope Commissioner Maddox will work with them, but that’s where the framework should start.”

Maddox said that in addition to a scope of work, the board needs to develop a process that identifies how the county uses vendor services.

“This need exists for a number of professional services, including legal,” he said. “I believe there are areas where we are not utilizing legal services today, but we should be to avoid a litigation scenario. There are also areas where we utilize legal; but, we should hire professional management to handle those responsibilities.”

Ellis said, while he would support the development of a scope of work, it’s important that the legal issues are handled successfully.

“Cases have to be argued from the time the case begins, when we’re first notified of a case, to the time the judge makes a decision, which can be years,” he said. “It’s an undetermined amount of time, and Newton County needs to win the cases because there are a lot of frivolous suits.”

Currently, there are 14 cases pending against the county, some that have been in the legal system for more than 15 years.

“Mr. Craig is exceptionally bright and successfully defends this county 99 percent of the time,” Ellis said. “I think he’s really only lost one case. He has a wealth of knowledge.”

“I don’t want to focus on Mr. Craig,” Schulz said. “When we talk about a scope of work, it’s not just about the county attorney. It’s for every single vendor. We need to have a strong scope of work for all vendors — and that needs to be consistent with our overall arching vision for Newton County and its future, all of the vendors we utilize have to funnel into that vision and helps you actualize your vision.”

Maddox agrees. “If a commissioner or a chairman initiates fees from any vendor, that persons’ name and the topic should be included on the invoice as a way for the county staff to justify the processing of payment. Again, this is for all vendors. This alone provides our professional staff with a better ability to achieve success in doing their job functions.”
“I’ve operated 39 years without a scope of work, and I guess the scope of work [was] I’ve resolved the problems that have been brought to me,” Craig said. “It includes disputes, contract matters, negotiations, land acquisitions, personnel matters, planning & zoning, economic development.

“It’s hard to know what problems will arise, and it won’t all fit into a category,” he said. “I’m happy to engage in a scope of work, but I don’t think it will change what I do for the county. I think the commissioners know what they’re bringing me and I think know that subjects that are being sent to my office for resolution and know what I’m working on. I don’t think there’s as much confusion as people might like to insinuate. “

“I’m not going to approve something I don’t have detail on, that we don’t have a scope of work on,” Schulz said. “I would never approve the invoices that have the lack of detail those invoices have. How many minutes have you spent with whom on what subject and what was the object? Did you achieve the objective?”

Craig said the firm bills in six-minute increments, which is standard for law firms. He said entering a description of what’s being done every six minutes means “all we do is enter our time. I write what I do down in a journal and summarize what I do. It’s called a memorandum of billing. Law firms all over the world do it.

“It’s a waste of my time and the county’s money to do time tracking,” he said.