13% raise for county lawyers as em­ployee salaries stag­nate

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - MERIS LUTZ mlutz@cov­news.com

New­ton County’s legal fees con­tinue to soar above bud­get, as com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved more than $83,000 in pay­ments to long­time County At­tor­ney Tommy Craig’s firm for the month of Fe­bru­ary alone.

Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent fi­nan­cial re­port, the Gen­eral Fund has reached 120.7% of its legal bud­get, just more than half­way through the fis­cal year.

Craig dis­missed bud­getary lim­its at a public Board of Com­mis­sion­ers meet­ing last month, com­par­ing the county’s legal de­fense to be­ing “at war.” Ac­cord­ing to the county’s fi­nance depart­ment, Craig has in­creased his rates and those of the at­tor­neys work­ing at his firm by 13% since FY2013. Se­nior county em­ploy­ees re­ceived be­tween 1 and 2 per­cent raises for FY2015 af­ter sev­eral years of stag­na­tion.

None of the com­mis­sion­ers that could be reached said they were aware that Craig has in­creased his rates. The county does not have any writ­ten con­tract with Craig that would in­clude hourly rates.

Com­mis­sioner John Dou­glas, who has pinned his fis­cal con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials to a strong anti-tax stance, of­fered “no com­ment” on Craig’s raise. Craig con­trib­uted $2,000 to Dou­glas’ state Se­nate re­elec­tion cam­paign in 2008, public records show.

Nei­ther Com­mis­sioner Lanier Sims nor Chair­man Keith El­lis re­turned e-mails and phone calls for com­ment.

Com­mis­sioner J.C. Hen­der­son said Craig’s rates were within the range of other lo­cal at­tor­neys.

Com­mis­sioner Le­vie Mad­dox wrote in an e-mail that the in­crease in Craig’s fees “is an item that I’d have to look at a bit fur­ther to re­ally com­ment on.”

“We must get a han­dle on our over­all ex­penses in EV­ERY area, that ab­so­lutely in­cludes legal,” he wrote. “This has to be done with a ra­tio­nal ap­proach how­ever; as we can­not just drop the things we are mak­ing progress on.”

Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz con­firmed that Craig’s rates were never dis­cussed dur­ing his suc­ces­sive reap­point­ments, and ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with the cur­rent ap­proval process.

“If we’re go­ing to spend $23,000 of tax­payer money, there needs to be au­tho­riza­tion on the front end,” said Schulz, re­fer­ring to one in­voice in par­tic­u­lar that cov­ered three days of work, in­clud­ing a trip to Sa­van­nah by two of Craig’s at­tor­neys.

“I just don’t ap­pre­ci­ate look­ing through a check reg­istry and find­ing out the in­for­ma­tion af­ter it’s been done, and as a sit­ting com­mis­sioner not hav­ing been in­volved in the de­ci­sion mak­ing process,” the com­mis­sioner said.

Schulz is pre­par­ing to hold a com­mit­tee meet­ing next week to dis­cuss tight­en­ing the lan­guage of the per­sonal ser­vices sec­tion of the county pur­chas­ing pol­icy, which would af­fect how the county en­gages legal ser­vices.

“There is no scope of work and no for­mal bud­get pro­posal for rates or cost of work per­formed,” she said of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the board and the county at­tor­ney.

“That is one of the rea­sons I want this pur­chas­ing pol­icy to ad­dress that,” she con­tin­ued. “Any time we are ex­pend­ing any money, even for pro­fes­sional ser­vices, we need to have a scope of work and rates iden­ti­fied and a pro­posal on how much it’s go­ing to cost us.”

A re­port by The News found that Craig’s in­voices were ap­proved by the county manager with lit­tle or no over­sight by elected of­fi­cials.

“The checks would have my sig­na­ture on them, but I would not have seen those in­voices,” Chair­man El­lis said at the time.

Ac­cord­ing to the fi­nance depart­ment, the rates of Craig and Jenny Carter went from $195 per hour in FY2013 to $220.95 per hour in FY2015, while the rates of Banks Craig, An­drea Gray and Lara Benz went from $150 per hour in FY2013 to $169.95 per hour in FY2015.

On Fe­bru­ary 17, Craig brushed off con­cerns that the county was al­ready over its legal bud­get, say­ing “We don’t have any way to pre­dict on the front end what the [costs] are go­ing to be.”

“It costs what it costs,” he said. “Sorry if we’ve ex­ceeded the bud­get, but I’m not go­ing to apol­o­gize.”

Craig’s firm billed the county more than $1.1 mil­lion for the 2014 cal­en­dar year while ow­ing mil­lions in fed­eral in­come tax and penal­ties.

The board of com­mis­sion­ers was sup­posed to dis­cuss the county’s legal fees, among other press­ing is­sues, at its an­nual retreat, which was sched­uled for Jan­uary but can­celled at the last minute due to con­cerns over in­clement weather.

The pur­chas­ing pol­icy com­mit­tee meet­ing will be held Tues­day, March 24 at 8:30 a.m. on the sec­ond floor of the county ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing.

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