TARPON SPRINGS — Increasing legal fees and a murky agreement on what services are covered under a retainer are forcing the city to consider whether it's more efficient to have in-house legal services.
The city's Budget and Advisory Committee asked city commissioners recently to weigh the financial pros and cons of having an in-house city attorney.
"The entire process is a huge concern and it needs to be reviewed," Commissioner Susan Slattery said. "We need control, and one of the ways to do that is to have an in-house attorney. We have to cut somewhere and that makes sense. I think we can get a good attorney for less than what we are paying now."
For fiscal year 2009, Tarpon Springs spent nearly $400,000 in attorney fees with the Dunedin firm of Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt, Trask and Yacavone.
Tarpon, with a population of 23,000, paid $396,914, including the $76,127 retainer fee.
By comparison during that same period, Safety Harbor (population 18,000), paid $91,779, Dunedin (population 37,000) spent $204,393 and Oldsmar (population 14,000) paid $89,344. Clearwater, with a population of 108,000, nearly five times more than Tarpon Springs, paid $508,056 for five of its in-house attorneys.
Commissioner Jeff Larsen sent City Manager Mark LeCouris a letter Monday inquiring about all the legal services that fall under the city's $76,127 retainer. "There is a gray area, " Larsen said. "It's our job as commissioners to review that bill. There is a lack of clarity (with the retainer agreement)."
City Attorney Jim Yacavone is adamant that the city is not being overbilled by his firm, which does the contract work.
The retainer includes preparation of city ordinances, according to a 1999 memorandum from then-City Attorney John G. Hubbard. That memorandum still is the binding agreement because the city has not revisited the arrangement since that time.
But Yacavone has billed the city separately for work on at least 11 ordinances during the past 21/2 fiscal years, including through May 5 of this year. That bill totaled $42,735.08, with $14,366 for work on a sign ordinance and $10,587 on a formula retail ordinance.
Yacavone said the work required additional effort; therefore, he has the authority to send a separate bill.
"We charge for those ordinances that we believe are special projects," Yacavone said. "When it is an ordinance that requires a significant amount of work and research, it becomes a special project."
Yacavone, who became Tarpon's attorney about three years ago after Hubbard had a heart attack, points to the memorandum's language that says "major special projects requiring extensive amounts of time" can be billed separately. He said it is his and Hubbard's understanding that ordinance drafting can be a special project depending on the amount of work.
"Fundamentally, we make that decision," Yacavone said. "It's easy for the commission to say we need a tree ordinance, but what it takes to prepare a tree ordinance, you never know until you get into it."
Yacavone said that Tarpon Springs is a labor-intensive city for legal work. For example, the city has wanted attorneys at several board and committee meetings, which are not covered under the retainer. Those extra fees totaled $84,988 in fiscal year 2009 alone.
The city's initial retainer fee was $48,000 in 1998. In 2000, that increased to $53,760 and then $60,534 in 2004. That same year, it was decided that the retainer fee would increase at the same yearly percentage as city employee raises.
Yacavone suggested that a discussion be held about what defines a special project.
"I am more than happy to sit down to try and find ways to reduce the bills with the city and work with the city and work through these issues," Yacavone said. "We have not done anything that's contrary to the memorandum as we understand the memo. We probably could have been clearer."
Hubbard agreed with Yacavone, saying some ordinances should be considered special projects because of the extra work involved.
Mayor David Archie said it is not a question of the firm's "quality of work or integrity." He said with an 11-year-old memo, it probably got lost as a tool or guide for billing. Archie said recent processes have been put in place to review all city contracts.
"As we continue to look and see that there are some discrepancy and some errors, I believe the firm will make that right," Archie said. "There might have been some errors in interpretation as to what was billable."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.