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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

As city coffers continue to shrink, city attorneys avoid cuts

ST. PETERSBURG -- During a budget workshop on Tuesday, the salaries earned by city attorneys came under fire.

After a review of the Mayor Bill Foster's budget for 2012, which contained no budget reduction for the City Attorneys office, Council Member Karl Nurse let loose.

"I don't think it's fair that top paid attorneys don't take cuts," Nurse told City Attorney John Wolfe. "Everyone else gets cuts. It's bad for morale. They're the highest paid employees and they're the only ones who don't participate in the cuts."

Wolfe defended the salaries city attorneys make, saying that his attorneys could be making quite a bit more in private practice. His office has about a dozen full-time attorneys. Ten of those earn more than $80,000. Three of the top 10 salaries in the city are attorneys.

"It depends on the quality of attorneys you want," Wolfe said. "We could go with cheaper attorneys. If you want cheaper quality of service, tell me, and I can do that."

He said his attorneys' legal acumen avoids losing verdicts that would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands. He said his staff negotiated contracts with vendors such as Oracle that saved the city $200,000.  His office has won some high-profile cases of late, such as a homeless case that's now in appeal. But it's lost some, too. It lost a case to the Tierra Verde Civic Association, nixing a proposed project the city had approved after a 2008 annexation. Last year it also lost a pension case that required the city to pay $1.5 million in benefits to 351 former officers.

Only Wengay Newton joined Nurse in criticizing how the attorneys have avoided cuts. He said he felt that Wolfe, who is supposed to be a legal advisor to both Foster and the council, instead turned into an advocate for a red light camera program that Foster supported -- and Newton opposed.

"It's times like that where I sense a conflict," Newton said.

"I work for you too," Wolfe said.

Leslie Curran defended the city attorneys, saying they deserve what they get paid.

"You haven't been given a raise and your workload has increased," she said. "I think we have a great legal department and taht what we need to continue."

Minutes later, council members agreed to a 3 percent pay cut, reducing their salary from $38,914 a year to $37,714.

The cut, coming a year after another 3 percent reduction, caused concern that the City Council is becoming a bastion for retirees and the independently wealthy. Those who work for an employer can ill afford to take time off for a job that requires time and pays little to compensate for the trouble.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have someone under 30 on the Council?" said Chairman Jim Kennedy.

-- Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 12:37pm]


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