Council Irons Out Differences Over City Legal Fees

SALISBURY – The City Council came to a calm and collected agreement this week on the amount to increase the General Fund budget to cover the city attorney’s fees for the remainder of the fiscal year.

A couple of weeks ago, 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.

According to the ordinance, the FY12 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 required 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, as well as 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.

Council members Shanie Shields and Laura Mitchell expressed concern over the two matters being included in the same piece of legislation as they supported the sewer fund expense and not the general fund.

“I would support moving forward the ordinance with the waste water treatment adjustment made for legal fees for the water and sewer fund,” Mitchell said at that time. “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 added 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 and Vice President Deborah Campbell argued that budget amendments for legal fees are a traditional order of business and that if the amendment wasn’t made the city would be left without legal counsel.

After much debate the council finally came to an agreement voting to amend the ordinance to allow for a $30,000 in the budget for legal fees to cover current bills, leaving time before second reading to come to an amount for future fees.

This week, the ordinance approached the City Council in second reading and Cohen stated that the council had reached a consensus in work session to change the number in question to $100,000, to cover current legal bills as well as cover the city to the end of the fiscal year.

“It gives me…heartburn to do this,” Shields said.

Shields furthered that she had continually looked over the city’s legal fees finding that she had made an error in calculations and misinterpreted the council’s use of the attorney.

“I still wish that we be financially responsible in how we use the attorney,” she said as she set a motion to amend the ordinance. “The initial decision I proposed in the work session, I will have to go over the $70,000 to make it $100,000 to hopefully keep another budget amendment from coming before us, but I do want to commend the departments that utilize the constraints from legal department and I am encouraging everyone to continue to do so, so we do not have to use all of the money.”

Her motion was seconded by Mitchell who said that she took the time to “piecemeal” her way through the city attorney’s fee information.

“The $70,000 was accurate based on annualizing what we had spent to date but information that we have that we have asked the city attorney to do … I think it is necessary that we put some more in there,” she said.

Mitchell used the matter of the council having to work on election redistricting this year that hasn’t been done in an over a decade, which has increased legal fees for the year.

“So in the end there is a number of $100,000 that I would hope and anticipate will get us through the end of the year, but only if we are very judicious with the use of the city attorney on our part and in the department’s part,” she said. “I think we need to really watch it because there are things that have to be done and this needs to get us through.”

At that point, the City Council voted unanimously to increase the General Fund budget set for legal fees from the original amount of $70,000, which had been decreased to $30,000, to the final amount of $100,000, followed by a vote to approve the entire ordinance, including the increase in the Sewer Fund budget.

“I think we had a very reasoned and productive discussion around this. I am happy that we have reached an outcome that everyone can agree to,” Council Vice President Deborah Campbell said. “I think what had led to the confusion are that the bills are prepared differently now and you really have to drill down into the detail of the bill to understand how much time is allocated and it would be an easy mistake to make.”