Attorney's fair value merits a review

County Attorney Garth Coller's annual salary of $132,829 and his $50,477 worth of benefits are considered a scandal in some circles.

One county commissioner, Chairman Jim Adkins, has called for Coller's position to be cut as a cost-saving measure, and two other commissioners at least seem open to the idea. They're scheduled to talk about it at a meeting on July 26.

So it seems strange that, over at the city of Brooksville, nobody much questions the money it pays to the private lawyer it retains, Tom Hogan.

As I've written before, the city once had a nice tradition of paying bargain prices for its legal services — just $34,157 as recently as the 2003-04 fiscal year and $71,000 three years later when the city was fighting a nasty annexation battle.

Then the city hired Hogan's Brooksville-based firm and the payments climbed to a whole different level — $221,000 (2007-08), $209,000 (2008-09) and $231,000 (2009-2010).

So far this fiscal year, there's been a considerable drop in the number of hours the firm has billed, which is a mixed blessing because it's partly due to a contingency agreement the City Council approved last December.

This freed the city from Hogan's hourly fee of $175 for legal work that was a major factor in those big bills — going after payments of bonds for unfinished work promised by the developers of the Southern Hills Plantation and the Cascades subdivisions.

But the arrangement also granted Hogan's firm a substantial portion of any payoff in these cases. And in May the law firm hit what Hogan called a "home run," agreeing on the city's behalf to accept $3.5 million to settle the debt for a $20 million performance bond. Hogan's share, 25 percent, came to $867,000 — the kind of sum best described not by a adjective but by a sound effect: Cha-ching!

Just for fun, let's add that amount to the other fees the city has paid to the firm so far this year, $122,000, which gives us a figure of $989,000, and then divide that by the number of residents in Brooksville, 7,719. The result? In Brooksville the per-capita fee for its main legal provider so far this year is $128.13 — compared to $3.74 in the county. (Annual budget for its legal department: $641,000; county population: 171,233.)

Even recognizing that this kind of back-of-the-envelope figuring oversimplifies the situation, I think you'll agree that if I knew how to render a loud, astounded whistle in print, this would be the place to put it.

You might also be amazed to know that Hogan's firm reached the settlement after putting in 88.3 hours of work on that case, meaning that if it had charged the city on an hourly basis, it would have received only $15,452.

Why did I call that per-capita figuring an oversimplification?

Well, obviously, city taxpayers didn't directly pay for Hogan's share of the settlement. It was subtracted from the payments of bonding companies and Duke Energy, which backed the bond.

The utility, which was eager to settle, didn't get involved in the negotiations until about two months after the council voted to approve the contingency agreement, Hogan said. Before that, the chances for a payoff seemed far slimmer, especially because the firm and the city had been skunked in its attempt to get satisfaction for another bond, this one covering unfinished work at the Cascades.

Not only did a federal judge in Tampa rule against the city — a ruling it is appealing — but he did it with a detailed explanation that was used against the city in other bond claims.

"Everybody we've been dealing with has waved that ruling in our face," Hogan said.

When he advocated the contingency agreement in December, he said, he believed there was "no way" he could reach such a lucrative settlement so soon.

"I really thought we were looking at a five-year process, which probably would have cost us a lot of money," he said.

Okay, but this was the main point in the judge's ruling: Because the bond covered work in an unbuilt phase of the Cascades, the city couldn't prove damages to current residents or even any who might move in soon.

The second bond, on the other hand, covered the laying of new utility lines and improvements to the city's sewage treatment plants, which together would allow the pumping of treated wastewater to irrigate Southern Hills.

The city, along with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, had already invested quite a bit into laying these lines. Without the developer's contribution, it would be hard-pressed to improve the plants, which it needed to do to fulfill the terms of a cooperative funding agreement it had with Swiftmud.

The point is that in this case the potential damages to the city were pretty clear. Also, this bond was for a larger amount. Both factors, Hogan admitted last week, improved the prospect of a settlement from the start.

Does this mean the city got a raw deal? I don't know that, and certainly the settlement money will come in handy. At the same time, I'm not sure I know enough about Coller's performance to say whether the county needs to preserve his job.

But somewhere between City Council members' (with a few exceptions) sheeplike acceptance of Hogan's fees, and the County Commission's reflexive antagonism to just about every highly paid employee, there has to be a happy medium.

In fact, I actually have a constructive suggestion. Last month an office of the Florida Bar issued a report on the county legal department showing it was efficient and understaffed.

Accepting up front that the bar might not be the most unbiased organization to judge other lawyers, bring them down and let them see if Hogan is giving the city its money's worth.

Attorney's fair value merits a review 06/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 25, 2011 11:08am]

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