Augusta paid about $1.7 million to outside law firms for legal work last year, despite having an in-house legal staff of five full-time attorneys.
A look at records of city payments to law firms shows that $718,000 of the $1.7 million came directly from Augusta’s general fund, with the rest of the legal bills paid using sales-tax or enterprise-fund dollars.
General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said he’s implemented preventative measures to cut legal costs, such as evaluating cases early and increasing the number of staff attorneys to six, but that the savings can take time to be realized.
Budget documents show the city spent $1.72 million on outside legal counsel during 2010 and budgeted $822,900 for it during 2011.
The biggest recipient of city outside legal spending last year was Shepard, Plunkett and Hamilton, an Augusta law firm that includes Steve Shepard, a former Augusta commissioner and city attorney.
The city paid Shepard, Plunkett and Hamilton $577,538, including $284,133 in general fund dollars and $80,958 in sales-tax money, for legal work last year, records show.
The firm also was paid $174,096 for land acquisition in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem districts, although a portion of that payment may include the price of land purchased in the blighted area now being redeveloped by the city’s Housing and Community Development Department.
The firm’s Dan Hamilton is handling the city’s defense in a lawsuit over the 2006 fire deaths of Ryan Holt and Michelle Borror. The young couple perished in a mobile home fire their families say could have been prevented if a city inspector had done his job.
The sheer size of the action - 50 depositions have been conducted - would make it difficult for in-house lawyers to focus on anything else if the city hadn’t retained outside counsel, MacKenzie said.
The firm’s Jim Plunkett specializes in economic development legal work, such as the public-private partnerships between Augusta and operators of the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center and the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem redevelopment project, he said.
“These are projects that have been around a long time,” MacKenzie said. “With a long-term project, it’s usually efficient to keep the same legal counsel involved.”
Another big recipient of outside legal work is the law firm Burnside Wall LLP, which includes former city attorney Jim Wall.
Burnside Wall, paid $65,000 from the general fund for legal work last year, handles most legal work for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and helped with a suit filed last year by contractor John Speer concerning the city’s award of a construction contract.
McKenna Long & Aldridge, a large international firm, received $289,000 in Augusta general fund dollars during 2011. The firm oversaw creation of Augusta’s tax allocation districts, several recent bond issues and was involved in the Thomson litigation over the city’s use of race-based criteria in the award of city contracts.
McKenna Long & Aldridge does the type of specialized work Augusta will likely always rely on outside counsel to handle, according to MacKenzie.
While the city law office has six lawyer positions, only five are filled. MacKenzie earns $133,992, senior staff attorney Wayne Brown makes $112,506 and staff attorneys Scott Bray, Kayla Cooper and Jody Smitherman earn between $78,000 and $89,000 annually. Their annual insurance, pension, retirement and other benefits, including MacKenzie’s $7,200 annual car allowance, together total approximately $150,000.
An in-house law office was specified by Augusta’s consolidation bill, although it took the commission until 2006 to hire General Counsel Eugene Jessup. Jessup and his successor, Chiquita Johnson, were forced to resign. MacKenzie has been with the office since 2007.