SALISBURY — Concern over the amount of money Salisbury might be spending on legal fees prompted two City Council members last week to draw a line in the sand, stating they will refuse to add any more money to the city’s legal budget.
After last week’s meeting, when Councilwomen Laura Mitchell and Shanie Shields stated their opposition to moving any funds into the attorney fees account, the issue returned in ordinance form this week.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Tim Spies made a motion to introduce a budget amendment to “appropriate funds for attorney fees” but it died due to the lack of a second, largely due to Councilwoman Terry Cohen being absent and Council President Jake Day being unable to make a second. Day had questioned whether he could make a second as president and he was advised he could not. That was the end of the discussion at this week’s meeting.
However, at last week’s meeting, Mitchell, who has expressed worries about mounting legal fees in the past, prompted the discussion during her comments period at the end of the meeting.
“I think we need to address, it may seem radical, but a possible suspension of all legal services that are not emergency services,” she said. “We are, as of mid-May, very likely over budget.”
Mitchell admitted that she couldn’t be sure if the city had gone over budget because the attorney fees had not been submitted at that time. However, she predicted that they would be close to if not over the $215,000 originally set aside for this year and could be as much as $40,000 over.
“We’re out of money so right now we are spending money that we don’t have appropriated and we’re not allowed to do that,” said Mitchell. “So we have to come up with a solution.”
Suspending all legal services except for emergencies would be disruptive and is far from ideal, she continued, but seemed to be the best option right now.
“I know that’s a problem and it creates a bottleneck, but we still can’t spend money that we don’t have appropriated,” she said.
City Administrator John Pick informed the council that there is currently an item on their May 27 legislative meeting agenda that would allow them to add more money into the legal fund to cover any overrun that might happen before the new fiscal year July 1.
“If we do first reading Monday night than we can come back a week later and do second reading, which would advance the process and get extra money in the budget before we have to take a drastic action like cutting off legal,” Pick said.
That first reading Pick referred to failed to muster enough support at Tuesday’s meeting.
Both Mitchell and councilmember Shanie Shields adamantly and immediately opposed the idea of refreshing the fund last week.
“I am not going to support adding any more money to legal fees,” said Shields.
Mitchell agreed and told the council that she was “not willing to do that.”
Others on the council advised waiting until all of the factors were clear before making a decision. Spies said that he would “prefer that we have those numbers in front of us” before taking action.
City Attorney Mark Tilghman promised to have all of his office’s expenses submitted by the end of the month, adding that he would attempt to get them in prior to next week’s meeting.
“I had committed … to have the bills up to date by the end of the month and I will,” he said.
Tilghman also remarked that the $215,000 that had been budgeted this year seemed to be under the average, which he believed to be in the $300,000 range. Shields contested the point by saying that in all her time on the council she could not remember the budget for legal fees being at $300,000. Mitchell added that the council had made an effort to accurately factor what the legal fees should be during the last budget.
Day said last week he was in favor of waiting to see the fees before deciding on whether or not to put more money into the fund or freeze services.
“I think that gives me a path forward,” he said.