Salisbury Transfers Funds To Cover Attorney Fee Shortage

SALISBURY – The City of Salisbury’s struggle covering attorney fees continue as the City Council voted this week to cover the cost with a departmental surplus versus the city’s emergency fund.

An ordinance approving a budget amendment of the Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) General Fund to appropriate funds for attorney fees came before the City Council on Monday evening in its second and final reading.

The ordinance as proposed would have increased the attorney fees in FY15 by $25,000 in order for the city attorney to meet the projected requirements for legal fees for the remainder of FY15 by removing the allocation from the current year’s surplus, which is commonly referred to as the “emergency fund.”

However, when the matter was last discussed during a recent work session it was the council’s desire for additionally appropriated attorney fees to be withdrawn from departmental savings.

Also, Director of Internal Services Keith Cordrey recommended the council approve the exact figure of $12,500 in additional city attorney fees opposed to the gross estimate of $25,000.

City Administrator Tom Stevenson proposed $500 derives from the Mayor’s Office, $2,500 from the Finance Department, $5,500 from Public Works, and $4,000 from the Police Department to total $12,500.

“It concerns me when we do a yearly budget, and if a department comes in under budget … the department of law should do the same thing,” Councilwoman Shanie Shields said. “I think it is terrible that money is being taken out of other departments … to me, if our other departments are fiscally responsible, then the department of law should do the same.”

Shields furthered the billing process for attorney fees has been an ongoing issue for years where the city isn’t receiving bills until months later.

“It should be more professional … a proper billing procedure should be put in place,” she said. “I will not be supporting this. The billing process and the law department adhering to our budget are very important. This is not our money. It is the taxpayer’s money, and they want everybody to be responsible.”

Council President Jake Day agreed.

“The billing and budgeting has continued to be an issue at the council table throughout the year and particularly at budget time. In fact, I remember sitting here a year ago thinking this is the last time this is going to happen. What changed over the course of last year, if you look at the bill, what we were asking from the city attorney’s office changed significantly but the demand increased dramatically and the compensation did not,” Day said. “I am certainly not interested in coming to the table tonight to take money from surplus. Now finding savings from other departments I am not opposed to.”

Day stated he is determined to find a way to contract with the city attorney without having to constantly pass a budget amendment at the end of every fiscal year to appropriate additional attorney fees.

“That tells me we have not structured this relationship in a thoughtful way and we need to rethink that,” Day said.

Councilman Jack Heath reiterated the city is in need of better management.

“Part of a manager’s responsibility in managing the budget is to look at progression over a period of time and make adjustments accordingly. Had we been up to speed relative of where we are with the budget, two months ago maybe, we would have known we were in a little bit of a problem and we could have planned and made adjustments internally,” Heath said. “I am glad in the past couple of months we have started to see some improvement but until we get to a point where we can see it on a monthly basis I think we are going to risk seeing ourselves in the same situation.”

The council was concerned a misconstrued message would be relayed to city departments to avoid having to call the city attorney.

“You should be able to call your attorney when you need advice and it shouldn’t lead to additional charges if it is structured properly … there is some balance to be struck. I don’t know the right answer,” he said.

The council voted 4-1 with Shields opposed to amend the ordinance by striking $25,000 be allocated from the current year surplus and replace it with $12,500 be allocated from the aforementioned departments. Subsequently, the ordinance was approved with a vote of 4-1 with Shields approved.