published Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Chattanooga: Commission, school board open to reducing attorney fees


by Dan Whisenhunt

Hamilton County spent a little more than $900,000 on its in-house attorneys office last year, but still paid more than $250,000 in outside legal fees, records show.

  • photo
    In this file photo Jim Coppinger speaks to reporters after taking the oath of office to become Hamilton County Mayor on Jan. 11, 2011.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Some on the County Commission said they are open to finding ways to curtail those expenses.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor’s office includes two other full-time attorneys and three full-time secretaries. Last year, his budget was $922,214. His office spent $89,333 to pay for outside attorneys and legal fees, records show.

Overall, the county spent $250,735 for outside legal help on such matters as bankruptcy, age discrimination lawsuits and legal research, records show.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said hiring outside counsel is sometimes necessary if county attorneys do not have enough experience in a particular area of the law.

“Sometimes that expertise in that particular field is important to the county to be able to have a good defense to protect the taxpayer’s money,” Coppinger said. “I think it’s money well spent.”

Taylor’s budget this fiscal year, which began July 1, is $953,103, a $30,889 increase over the last year. Part of his operating expenses cover outside legal work, according to the County Auditor’s Office.

Coppinger noted that the contract with Taylor — who earns an annual salary of $143,099 — is not up until 2013.

Commissioner Jim Fields, a practicing attorney, said he’s open to looking at ways to reduce attorney fees. The amount the county spends on outside counsel “could pay for a couple of attorneys and some staff,” he said.

The county spends too much on attorneys, Commissioner Chester Bankston said. He wants to examine prohibiting county attorneys from taking on outside work, he said.

“We do need to look at it and see if there’s a way we can save money that way and let one attorney handle it all and not let them be mixed up in anything else,” Bankston said.

OUTSIDE LEGAL TAB

Hamilton County outside legal expenses and services in fiscal year 2010:

$17,967 — Attorney Dana Beltramo, legal research for county jail inmates

$63,866 — Attorney Dee Hobbs, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office

$7,500 — Attorney Michael Carter, Hamilton County Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority

$21,323 — Attorney Wade Hinton, Hamilton County Equal Employment Opportunity Program

$14,013 — Samples, Jennings, Ray & Clem; Hamilton County Election Commission

$726 — Grisham Knight & Hooper, collections in bankruptcy for Criminal Court Clerk

$514 — Defrees & Fiske, bankruptcy matters, out-of- state cases

$26,344 — Miller & Martin, age discrimination lawsuit against former trustee Carl Levi

$41,461 — Spears Moore Rebman, bankruptcy, Chapter 11 cases

$55,071 — Miller & Martin, matters related to Enterprise South industrial park

$1,950 — Attorney William David Jones, matters related to ESIP railroad and bridge improvements

Total: $250,735

Source: Hamilton County Auditor’s Office

Unlike other full-time attorneys in Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties, Taylor’s contract states he and his staff can take on outside legal work in addition to their county duties. Taylor said this has never been a problem.

“In the 17 years I’ve been here ... I’ve never heard any complaints about availability or productivity of the county attorney’s office,” Taylor said.

Legal fees and how to shrink them are also on the mind of the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Linda Mosley, chairwoman of the board’s Budget and Finance Committee, said she wants to reduce what the board spends on outside legal fees. The board does not employ a full-time attorney.

The school board had $332,032 in legal expenses in fiscal year 2010, and Mosley said hiring an in-house attorney might cut that expense.

“Bringing legal services in house is something we need to look at,” Mosley said. “I don’t know how effective it would be, but we need that option.”

Scott Bennett, a contracted attorney for Hamilton County Department of Education, did not have a direct response when asked if the board’s legal work should be performed by a full-time employee. He noted that, when he was initially hired several years ago, school officials decided at the time it would be cheaper than hiring an in-house attorney.

Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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