Newton County's chairman says the government should consider hiring a staff attorney rather than using an outside law firm so it can reduce legal costs which are much higher than many comparable metro Atlanta counties.
In his weekly "Chairman's Corner" column, Chairman Marcello Banes of the Newton County Board of Commissioners said that creation of a county legal department with one salaried attorney and one support staff person "is an example of how we can drastically reduce our legal fees and legal expenses."
He said his research showed Newton County government pays more for legal services than its neighborning counties and some larger counties in metro Atlanta.
"Based upon these findings, I believe that Newton County should quickly transition to an in-house attorney. After the incorporation of our new Strategic Plan, I am confident that our County Manager Lloyd Kerr, with the assistance of an in-house counsel, has the proper staffing to address Department and Human Resource legal issues that may arise on a daily (basis).
"The creation of a county Legal Department with one salaried attorney and one support staff is an example of how we can drastically reduce our legal fees and legal expenses.
"As an alternative, if a contract attorney is chosen, the legal fees and legal expenses should be capped between $350,000 and $450,000, in line with the spending of multiple other comparable (jurisdictions)."
Banes said Newton County paid a total of $944,562 to two different law firms representing the county government and sheriff's office in the 2020 fiscal year. That amount has fluctuated annually but has averaged about $910,000 annually since 2010, according to figures Banes reported.
By comparison, some larger counties spent much less in 2020, including Henry County at $589,000, Hall County at $765,310, and Paulding County at $504,707.
Counties comparable in size to Newton also spent less, including Fayette (which uses a staff attorney), $150,167; Lowndes, $409,391; and Bartow, $124,340.
Some neighboring counties' comparable costs include Walton, $217,152; and Rockdale, $640,165, according to spending numbers provided by Banes.
"The above data was compiled from open records requests presented to the respective counties asking for legal fees and legal expenses paid by the county for legal services rendered to the county and sheriff’s office for the last two fiscal years. While the start and end time of the fiscal year may differ among the counties, the period of time covered is 12 months, with the exception of Coweta County, which had only nine months available for FY2020."
The county government has used the Forsyth County-based firm of Jarrard and Davis since before he took office, Banes said.
The county contracted with the firm after effectively firing its former, longtime attorney, Tommy Craig, in 2015 amid questions about management of funds for the Bear Creek Reservoir project which was later abandoned.
The county commission eventually hired Jarrard and Davis. The sheriff's office, however, still uses Craig for its legal work.
"I greatly appreciate the hard work that (Jarrard and Davis) has done during a difficult transition period. However, it is clear that the time has come to address our legal costs in a more aggressive manner," Banes said.
He said legal fees are among the Newton County government’s highest expenses and "the issue of our legal fees and legal expenses has always caught my attention" since taking office in 2016.
"Throughout the last year I have discussed legal fees with many officials from our neighboring counties and our commissioners. In addition, I have researched the handling of legal needs, legal fees and legal expenses in several counties with similar populations and characteristics of Newton County. My research has shown a drastic difference between our legal fees and those of our neighbors," he said.
"It is important to note that these counties have liability insurance that provide legal defense for civil damage claims filed against the county or sheriff’s office. There is a $10,000 deductible that is paid by the county per claim. The fees associated with the deductible are not included in these figures," Banes wrote.
He said many counties he researched either used a single local law firm or an in-house attorney.