COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County’s chairman said he was “not bashing” the law firm the government now uses for legal representation in a cost analysis he recently compiled which included his recommendation for hiring an in-house attorney.
Chairman Marcello Banes said he wanted to show commissioners that the establishment of its own law department possibly could lower the government’s costs after his recent analysis showed the county had higher legal costs than some metro counties with larger populations.
Banes said Newton County government has used the Cumming-based Jarrard & Davis law firm since before he came to office in January 2017.
“I’m thankful for the services Jarrard & Davis have provided for our community in a time of transition … from one attorney to another attorney,” Banes said.
“But I think it’s time we start to move in a different direction — try to save as much money as we possibly can for our citizens.”
Banes also said he wanted to dispel any rumors he was recommending the action to favor any specific attorneys for the job.
“None of my friends — people I consider friends — would want to be county attorney, I can promise you that,” Banes said. “That never crossed my mind.”
“What I am doing is trying to save the taxpayers of this county money,” he said.
Banes said he believed one salaried attorney and one support staff member could handle the county’s caseload and help County Manager Lloyd Kerr “address department and human resource legal issues that may arise.”
However, if commissioners want to continue using an outside attorney on a contract basis, legal fees and expenses should be capped between $350,000 and $450,000 “in line with the spending of multiple other comparable” government entities, Banes said.
He said Newton County paid a total of $944,562 to the 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.
In the 2018 fiscal year, the county government paid $959,825 and the sheriff’s office paid $349,867 in legal fees and expenses, he said.
Those amounts dropped to $653,355 for the county and $291,207 for the sheriff’s office in fiscal year 2020.
Banes said Newton County government also had higher combined county government and sheriff’s office legal costs than neighboring counties and some larger counties, such as Henry and Hall, in the past two fiscal years.
He said he filed open records requests to find the amounts of budgeted legal costs for 10 other Georgia counties during their most recent 12-month fiscal years.
The results showed counties comparable in population to Newton spent less, including Fayette, $150,167; Lowndes, $409,391; and Bartow, $124,340. Fayette uses a staff attorney while the others used outside law firms.
Neighboring counties' legal budgets included Walton, $217,152; and Rockdale, $640,165, according to spending numbers provided by Banes.
In addition, some larger counties spent much less than Newton in 2020, including Henry County at $589,000, Hall County at $765,310, and Paulding County at $504,707, Banes said.
He added that most counties he surveyed used outside attorneys rather than in-house legal departments.
USAGE DICTATES COSTS
Jarrard & Davis began working as Newton County’s interim county attorney in late 2015 after the commission fired its longtime attorney, Tommy Craig, over questions about his fees and work on a planned reservoir that was ultimately scrapped.
The sheriff’s office — which controls spending in its own budget — continued to use Craig’s Covington-based firm to represent it.
County commissioners, meanwhile, approved Jarrard & Davis as the fulltime county government attorney in 2016.
Megan Martin, who has been Jarrard & Davis’ lead attorney representing Newton County, said any government’s legal costs are driven by the amount a law firm’s services are used.
"The rate of such use is controlled by the client," Martin said. "So legal budgeting depends on the culture of the county and the amount of work that is assigned to the county attorney.”
She gave a series of examples showing services that can increase costs.
"For example, does the county want the county attorney to be on the periphery of every potential issue or only when called upon in certain instances? Will the county attorney be at meetings? Will the county attorney hold office hours? Will the county attorney be present for personnel situations?," Martin asked.
She said Banes “is doing a great job by looking for ways to protect the taxpayers’ purse.”
“Jarrard & Davis is a firm that’s sole focus is local government, so I do understand the want for a one-size-fits-all budget," Martin said.
Newton County’s annual legal fees topped $1 million three times between 2014 and 2017 as it dealt with a range of issues — from the abandoned reservoir and a change in the county’s form of government, to lawsuits dealing with the landfill and a former recreation director.
Martin said when Newton County hired Jarrard & Davis "we explained that the county’s legal fees would not immediately go to ($600,000 to $700,000) — our estimation of a legal budget once matters began to stabilize."
The firm's legal fees have decreased since it began working for Newton County government "as directed by the Board of Commissioners" from $1.07 million in 2016 to $653,355 in 2020, she said.
"We have closed several large legal matters that were extraordinarily time intensive, and we are happy to see many of those large files close and for the resulting fees to continue to trend downward," Martin said.
"We look forward to continuing to offer the county the best legal service for local governments that is available in the state."
Sheriff Ezell Brown said he does not see his office being affected by any changes Banes is proposing.
The position of sheriff is guaranteed in the state constitution in Georgia. It allows Brown and other county sheriffs to oversee their offices’ operations.
"I can say, with confidence, that based on our conversation there is no dispute between myself, our office, and Chairman Banes,” Brown said.
“My observation suggests that the resolution lies in a restructuring of the county’s legal representation system. The issue rests with the relationship between Chairman Banes and the current county attorneys,” he said.