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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Legal Fees Put Squeeze on Milton.

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Drains almost half of legal budget after three months

By DOUG NURSEThe Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 03/08/07

The city of Milton is blowing through its budget for legal advice at a rate that's causing some alarm.

The City Council set aside $110,000 for attorney fees but had spent $47,000 through mid-February. At that rate, by late summer the city won't have any money to fight lawsuits, draw up pending ordinances and pay for legal advice.

City Manager Aaron Bovos said that when starting up a city — Milton became a legal entity on Dec. 1 — legal bills are expected to be high. The city has to immediately approve scads of ordinances, and they have to be bulletproof. And that means lawyers.But some think the city might need more money for legal expenses.

"We may need to put another pencil to it," said City Council member Rick Mohrig.
Among north Fulton's other start-up cities, Sandy Springs budgeted $400,000 and Johns Creek put up $730,000 for first year's attorneys' fees.

Part of the problem for Milton may be that City Council members have been too quick to call the city attorney, Mark Scott, whenever they have questions. Scott bills $150 an hour, which is comparable to what Sandy Springs and Johns Creeks' lawyers charge. He estimates he spends 20 hours a week on city business, and said he hasn't even billed the city for much of the work he's done.

While Milton has been spared Johns Creek's and Sandy Springs' expensive court fights over adult entertainment, it has had some thorny legal questions to deal with, most notably annexation. The city has been dueling with Roswell over properties that were simultaneously annexed into both cities and has required a lawyer to help sort it out.

Council member Tina D'Aversa Williams said she believes legal expenses probably will start trending downward soon, but even so, she would like to see some sort of spending controls put in place."Most of our major ordinances have been developed, but independent of that, we need tighter controls and accountability for using the city attorney," she said. "I don't think we have that accountability at this point."

To help curb legal expenses, Bovos recently proposed having the city attorney report to him so all questions would have to be routed through him. That would allow him to more closely monitor how the money was being spent and the progress being made on various projects. By charter, the city attorney answers to the City Council.

The proposed ordinance was shot down 4-3, with council members Karen Thurman, Mohrig, Bill Lusk and Neal O'Brien opposed, and Mayor Joe Lockwood and council members Julie Zahner Bailey and Williams voting in favor of it.

"If I want to access people to do the job I was elected to do, I should be able to," said Mohrig. He suggested that if the council wants to save money, it should refrain from having marathon meetings where the city attorney has to attend. The city has been meeting at least once a week, and some sessions have lasted for four or five hours.

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