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County to consider in-house attorneys to save money

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At urging of the Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance, Rutherford County commissioners are requesting reports on the cost of setting up an in-house attorney as well as a monthly compilation on lawsuits against the county government.

County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, during a recent Steering & Governmental Affairs meeting, asked Mayor Ernest Burgess to put together "rough figures" on setting up a county legal staff, based on the litigation involving Rutherford County, and report back in three to four months.

Phillips, a veteran commissioner, pointed out the number of lawsuits against the county is "staggering" and seems to be "exploding." He also said he is impressed with the knowledge of County Attorney Josh McCreary and his law firm partners who handle the county's legal matters.

At the request of County Commissioner Robert Peay, staff also will compile a list of legal cases involving the county so commissioners can get a better idea of the amount of litigation McCreary's firm is handling. McCreary, under the county's legal services agreement, became the county attorney in 2016 after former County Attorney Jim Cope resigned before pleading guilty to insider trading involving his position as a board member of Pinnacle Financial Partners.

Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance, a political advocacy group, presented county officials with a letter and report in late February detailing potential over-billing by the county's law firm and suggested creation of an in-house attorney who could handle basic legal work and farm out litigation to private firms, in addition to overseeing the costs of outside legal work.

The RNA letter details how Cope, when he was county attorney, "required" the county to go through condemnation for 100 pieces of property in the Sharpsville and Halls Hill communities, rather than a direct purchase, for the widening of Halls Hill Pike. In six lots alone, though, the firm's legal fees totaled $77,024 for land purchased for $20,345.

A document signed by Mayor Burgess in 2007 shows Cope billed the county $39,750 for 106 title searches and real estate examinations for the Halls Hill acquisitions, each one at $375.

In another example, during the late 1990s expansion of Eagleville School, the county needed seven acres from Brad Huebner, which it acquired through condemnation, a process that lasted from 1998 to 2013 and required 271 court filings, the RNA points out. Ultimately, the county acquired the land for $70,680 but paid legal fees of $125,136, according to the letter.

The alliance's third example, from May 2012, shows the firm's partners at the time, Jim Cope, Evan Cope, Roger Hudson, Thomas Santel Jr., Jeff Reed and McCreary consulted with each other about a contract being formalized for representing Rutherford County.

The firm billed the county $10,000 for a total of 53.4 hours solely for the attorneys' discussions on the matter.

Rutherford County holds a contract with McCreary for $72,000 annually, plus full employee health insurance. Under a legal services agreement, Cope and his firm are being paid another $104,872, according to Rutherford County finance office.

In addition, the firm is compensated for claims paid through third-party administrators. Under this year's budget, the county set aside $800,000 for judgments and a portion of that would go to the firm for litigation. Members of the firm also are paid for delinquent tax payment work and providing counsel for Rutherford County Schools.

Based on the amount of work McCreary's firm is doing for the county government, its attorneys are making $167 an hour, and he compared that to $300 to $600 an hour private attorneys are making, including one who filed suit against the county recently.

During the steering committee meeting, Commissioner Robert Stevens encouraged consideration of hiring a county attorney who handles basic work such as resolutions, meeting attendance and advice and who oversees outside litigation, along with legal costs. In a separated interview, he said condemnation proceedings can turn expensive and title searches and preparation could run in the $375 range.

He warned fellow commissioners that hiring more than six attorneys would quickly push the county's costs upward of $1 million annually and, in response to a suggestion by another RNA member, said the county would not be able to hire a county attorney for only $100,000 a year.

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