by Jason Wright / Appen Newspapers
Milton's divisive sewer issue has likely cost the city more than $52,000 in legal bills alone, according to billing statements and other information from the city's law firm, Cumming-based Jarrard and Davis. That's more than one-fifth of the total legal costs of $276,167.The total includes the bills for September, the last month in fiscal year 2008. Jarrard and Davis has preliminary figures of $20,805 with a sewer item of $4,460. August's projected bill of $26,193.83, with a sewer allotment of $4,120.56, has not been passed by council.
At the city's hourly rate of $150 an hour, the total equals 360 hours on the issue - 15 days.The vote on the sewer service delivery map and intergovernmental agreement Sept. 15 was split bitterly, eventually coming down to a 4-3 vote after hours of discussion and research into the matter.Mayor Joe Lockwood and council members Karen Thurman, Bill Lusk and Burt Hewitt passed the map, with Julie Zahner Bailey, Tina D'Aversa and Alan Tart in opposition. Those three called the vote "sewer expansion."Fulton and Milton are now working on the map to smooth out some parcels left off Milton's version, which could increase the total cost, as well.
Since April, when the issue really began heating up — a $17,505 sewer bill out of a $38,062 total — Milton has steadily increased its legal bills.And the bills aren't all sewer. In July, sewer made up $12,975 of the total $43,962 bill. It was followed by billboard litigation at nearly $9,000.City Manger Billy Beckett, who left office Sept. 23 citing tensions with the three members who voted against the map, said the skyrocketing bills were due partly to increased use by council, who were trying to better acquaint themselves with the many issues the city is facing.City Attorney Ken Jarrard said he routinely talks to several different council members based on the issue at hand and that no one member or faction is more active than others.
For instance, he said most of the sewer cost came from simply the sheer amount of work needed to parse through the history of sewer in North Fulton, which included research into every parcel's vested property rights."My instructions were to get that right," he said. "Those findings were scrutinized by the whole council, and we're working with a battery of Fulton's lawyers.
"It is a big issue and truly a labor of love."Beckett said as Milton is a new entity, there is no internal policy on how the lawyer will be used, which leads to individual phone and e-mail communication. However, Jarrard and Davis' bills show research into specific issues and preparation and participation in City Council meetings dwarfed the time spent talking with individual council members.In a budget meeting Sept. 15, Beckett suggested one way to keep costs down was to introduce some sort of filtering system."If council feels calling and e-mailing the city attorney is the best way to go, that's fine," he said in another interview. "But the city needs to prepare for that use. [Jarrard and Davis] are selling a professional service, and you can't expect the attorney to be involved and not expect compensation."
Lockwood said he's "working on taking care of things" so the legal budget doesn't get out of hand next year, as well."The city attorney works for council and council needs a lot of advice," he said.For his part, Jarrard — whose firm works with a number of governments throughout north Georgia, including Forsyth County — said he has not worked in a jurisdiction where the information was filtered through a single source.To cover the costs, Milton had to bump up its fiscal year 2008 legal fee allocation from $180,000 to $300,000. Last year, the city had to make a similar move after legal fights involving annexation and other unforeseen circumstances blew past the original budget.For 2009, City Manager Billy Beckett originally set aside $250,000, but that was knocked down to $180,000 when the budget passed Sept. 15."We have unusual legal costs," said Beckett. "But we may have unusual circumstances."