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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 31, 2003 14 years ago

Aberrant Attorney Fees (Sara/Mana)

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The Sarasota city staff projection of the cost of hiring staff attorneys strikes public and private attorneys as fairly outrageous. Here's our independent analysis.

Aberrant Attorney Fees (Sara/Mana)

The Sarasota city staff projection of the cost of hiring staff attorneys strikes public and private attorneys as fairly outrageous. Here's our independent analysis.

By Kendall Jones

Senior Editor

The report had jaws dropping in law firms and city and county attorneys' offices throughout the Gulf Coast. It was, as one attorney told the Review, "outrageous and ridiculous." Another called it "laughable."

For more than two decades, Dick Taylor and his law firm have served as the primary city attorneys for Sarasota. They serve only at the pleasure of the city commission, and no one in the firm is on the city's regular payroll. Instead, the six-attorney firm of Taylor Lawless and Singer bills the city by the hour, the same way most civil practice lawyers bill their clients.

But the last couple of years have been expensive ones for Sarasota, from a legal fee perspective. Aside from developing a new downtown code, the city has been fairly litigious, filing and fighting lawsuits on the Van Wezel, the Ringling Bridge, and now, on the height restrictions affecting the symphony. As anyone who's ever been involved in litigation will attest, paying litigators by the hour adds up quickly.

Last year alone, Taylor Lawless billed the city about $1.6 million, plus the city paid other outside litigation counsel close to $850,000, bringing the city's legal expenses last year to $2.45 million. This year, Sarasota has budgeted $1.77 million to cover its legal bills to both Taylor Lawless and other outside counsel.

So it seemed quite reasonable for Sarasota Commissioner Mary Anne Servian to pose the question: Would the city reduce its legal expenses by hiring a full-time, in-house city attorney staff? Rather than billing by the hour, in-house counsel would be paid a flat salary. Servian wanted an outside consultant to perform the analysis to ensure objectivity.

However, the city's own finance staff ran the numbers. City Hall sources told the Review that most city insiders predicted the report would show no cost savings resulting from hiring in-house counsel because "the finance department does not want in-house attorneys."

The prediction was accurate. The city's chief financial management analyst Gary Laubacker estimated that the city would pay legal expenses of about $2.4 million per year if the city hired in-house attorneys. The result had Mitchell Kraft, city attorney for Tamarac, a Broward County city slightly larger than Sarasota, laughing: "Where did they get a number like that? That's amazing."

The Review informally polled several attorneys in Sarasota to find the flaws in Laubacker's report. First, Laubacker assumed the city would hire six full-time attorneys, the same number of attorneys as there are in the Taylor Lawless firm. First, no comparable-sized city in Florida has six full-time attorneys; few have more than two. Second, the six attorneys in the Taylor Lawless firm work on many different matters, for many different clients, including other municipalities. None work exclusively on Sarasota city matters. If the city hired staff attorneys, they would only work on city matters, requiring fewer attorneys.

Second, Laubacker's report assumes that all six staff attorneys would be paid a generous salary of $140,000 each. That salary may be appropriate for the lead in-house city attorney, but it is much higher than salaries paid to assistant city attorneys in other locations. Moreover, even in private practice, which typically pays higher than the public sector, only the more senior attorneys tend to receive salaries in that range. Like law firms, most city attorney offices are led by a experienced senior attorney, while more junior attorneys work as assistants. The younger attorneys command a much lower salary.

The Internet company PayScale performed a salary survey of city attorneys and government counsel in six states, including Florida. The company obtained pay information for 17 city attorneys; their annual salaries ranged from $51,850 to $117,139, with an average annual salary of $90,000. Self-labeled entry-level municipal attorneys reported an average annual salary of $29,000, public interest lawyers averaged $50,200, and general government attorneys averaged $53,500.

The Review conducted its own study, obtaining staffing and salary information for government entities similar in size to Sarasota (plus a couple of larger ones), including amounts the entity spent on outside counsel in addition to its in-house legal staff. The results make Laubacker's report look even more questionable.

Comparing the City Attorney Budgets

EntityPopulation*City Attorney BudgetStaffing (Salaries)Outside Counsel expenses

Sarasota53,939Current fiscal year: $1.77 million, Varies, six attorney firm but attorneys 2002-2003: $849,000

2002-2003 fiscal year: $2.45 millionwork on other matters. (Salaries unknown)

Tamarac56,444Proposed 2004: $690,000, 1 city attorney ($145,700), 1 deputy city attorney ($82,500), 2003 budget includes $161,000

2003: $665,8251 executive assistant ($40,300), 1 legal secretary ($25,400), for outside counsel, 2004 proposed budget

2 temporary law clerks ($20,900 each), 1 part-time secretary ($12,700)includes $163,000 for outside counsel

Fort Myers51,3232003-2004: $714,671, 1 city attorney ($103,622), 2 assistant city attorneys, 1 paralegal,None in the last two years

2002-2003: $760,7341 senior staff assistant, 2 staff assistants (combined salaries for

the 6 employees other than city attorney total $270,199)

Pensacola56,271Fiscal 2003: $731,200, 1 city attorney ($112,700), 3 assistant city attorneys Fiscal 2003: $10,000, Proposed 2004: $797,800(combined salaries total $285,400), 2 legal assistantsProposed 2004: $5,000

(combined salaries total $88,900)

Kissimmee50,978$416,6001 city attorney (unknown), 1 staff member (unknown)N/A

Walton County45,521County attorney expenses for 2003: $307,334, 2 attorneys, 2 staff (salaries not provided)2003: $125,542,

2004 budgeted: $350,8112002: $115,468

Flagler County56,785 County Attorney Proposed 2003-2004: $437,725, 1 county attorney, 1 assistant county attorney, 2 legal assistants 2002-2003: $108,550 (approximately

2002-2003: $396,628 (all 4 combined salaries total $236,805)$40,000 more than budgeted)

Orlando194,913$2,215,7341 city attorney, other staff unknown, individual salaries unknownUnknown

St. Petersburg250,354Recommended 2004: $2,600,000,1 city attorney, other staff unknown, individual salaries unknownUnknown

2003: $2,629,000

* Population information from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Florida

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