Originally created 07/31/00

County's litigation bill rises



Columbia County's legal tab may eclipse $300,000 for the first time in recent years.

Through March - nine months into the county's fiscal year - the firm of County Attorney Douglas D. Batchelor has submitted bills for $243,840.40 in work.

That's just $30,000 less than the bills submitted for all of last year - when the total tab topped $273,000. If this year's bills continue at their current level, the county will spend $325,120 for the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

But county leaders say that's just part of government.

"Every county or every city has an attorney," County Administrator Steve Szablewski said. "You've got to be prepared to get represented if you get sued or better yet if you need counsel before you get into litigation."

And litigation is what is helping push the legal bill higher. Since March, the firm of Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley spent a week in federal court arguing a lawsuit filed against the county by a former employee.

That suit - filed by Elaine Matthews against the county, current Commissioner Diane Ford, former Commissioner David Titus, former Commissioner Richard Reynolds and Mr. Szablewski - already has cost the county $85,695.67 in billed work and nearly $60,000 in unbilled hours. That's a total of $136,608.03 since 1993.

And the price tag on the suit - in which a jury awarded Mrs. Matthews $365,000 - probably will increase. David Hudson - also a member of the county's firm - advised commissioners to appeal the verdict. No decision has been made.

County commission Vice Chairman Jim Whitehead said he believes the county is getting a good deal on legal counsel: The firm charges the county $95 per hour.

"Every time we've compared with other counties, it looks like our hourly rate is either very competitive or below what other counties are paying," he said. "I feel very comfortable with it."

And the legal tab is not limited to lawsuits.

For example, between January and March, the firm billed the county $1,296 for work on the plan for the special purpose local option sales tax. And then there was nearly $7,500 in work for the county planning and zoning department. Most of that work focused on the Evans Town Center and other zoning ordinance changes.

"There's a lot of work that goes into things where there is no litigation involved," Mr. Szablewski said. "For example, contracts are reviewed before they signed - almost every matter that involves a contract or an agreement is reviewed by the attorney. So all of that is preventative maintenance."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.

County's legal bill

1993-94: $203,425.40

1994-95: $250,550

1995-96: $209,587

1996-97: $248,831.56

1997-98: $260,277.18

1998-99: $273,006.47

1999-2000: $243,840.40 (through March, with three months left in the fiscal year)