Funding Shortage In Legal Fees Divides Council

SALISBURY – By the end of Monday evening’s meeting, city attorney Mark Tilghman didn’t know whether he would return to work the next day as an ordinance approving his pay through the end of the fiscal year stopped in its tracks.

The last ordinance discussed that night was to approve an amendment to the current fiscal year’s General Fund and Sewer Fund budgets to appropriate additional funds to cover legal expenses.

According to the ordinance, the fiscal year 2012 General Fund and Sewer Fund budgets were created with certain estimates for legal services, and as the year has progressed it has been determined that those estimates will not be sufficient to cover all of the costs of the city’s attorney in the General Fund as well as the costs of the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant litigation attorneys.

The ordinance requires the City Council to increase the current surplus account for the General Fund by $70,000 in order to increase the General Fund City Attorney expenses by the same amount.

It also requires an increase in the Current Surplus Account in the Sewer Fund by $565,000 in order to increase the Sewer Fund expenses by the same amount.

In the current fiscal year, $170,750 was budgeted for the city attorney, and as of the end of February there was $9,790 left. Acting Director of Internal Services Gerri Moore has estimated an annualized amount of $240,438 of the General Fund to be paid to the city attorney by the end of the fiscal year, which is a shortfall of $70,000.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields believed that the two amendments should have been separate pieces of legislation, although they are both legal matters.

“I would have supported the increase of the sewer expenses but by you combining them like this I cannot support the ordinance,” Shields said. “I have concerns about the city attorney fees … I feel like it is something that is trying to get over, and I hate to do this to the wastewater treatment fees but I can’t support one without supporting the other.”

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell agreed with Shields that the two amendments should be separated because it is two different funds. Looking back to 2005, Mitchell could not find an ordinance that combined amendments on two different funds.

“I would support moving forward the ordinance with the wastewater treatment adjustment made for legal fees for the water and sewer fund,” Mitchell said. “I have not had time to review this information. I am not in support of increasing the legal fees in the General Fund at this time.”

Mitchell stated that the city attorney’s time has been mismanaged by council leadership who is constantly calling upon the attorney to attend meetings that he is not prepared for, causing unnecessary expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars.

Council President Terry Cohen pointed out a line within the ordinance that reads, “It is necessary for the City to have sufficient funds appropriated to meet its expected legal obligations.”

Cohen explained that it is a traditional procedure for the City Council to approve less than the expected amount of money spent on the city attorney at budget time so that the attorney’s work can be monitored.

“We anticipated at the beginning of the budget year that a budget amendment would be needed,” Vice President Deborah Campbell said. “It increases the level of accountability to do it this way.”

Campbell added that a city cannot be run without a city attorney, especially since there are ongoing legal matters as well as the attorney has been instructed to begin other work as well.

“In six out of the seven past years, we have had a budget amendment to increase the General Fund monies to cover the attorney’s fees … we pretty much demonstrated that we need  the attorney’s services and we need to pay for the services,” Councilman Tim Spies said.

The ordinance failed in a vote of 3-2, Mitchell and Shields opposed.
“All the legal work of the city will come to a halt now,” Cohen said.

At that point, Mitchell suggested removing the increase to the General Fund City Attorney expenses from the ordinance so that the increase to the Sewer Fund expenses could move forward, and the council voted to reconsider the ordinance.

Mitchell made a motion to decrease the attorney’s expenses to $30,000 so that February and March bills could be paid.

“I am not trying to leave the city in a vulnerable position, and I won’t apologize for being responsible with city taxpayers’ money, it does not embarrass me one bit that’s what I am here for,” she said.

Campbell attempted to raise Mitchell’s suggested amount to $40,000 but her amendment died in a 3-2 vote.

Finally the council voted unanimously to approve an amendment to the ordinance decreasing the attorney’s expenses from $70,000 to $30,000, followed by a unanimous vote to approve the entire ordinance, including the Sewer Fund increase.

The second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Monday, April 23.