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County legal tab on Halls River a tangled web

One year ago this month, a Brooksville judge ruled that the County Commission did not follow its own comprehensive plan when it approved the divisive Halls River Retreat condominium project.

The county appealed, and lost. Then it asked the original judge to clarify the intentions of his initial order. He declined just weeks ago.

Now one question remains: How much did the county's losing legal battle cost?

Records compiled last week show part of the picture. Of the more than $90,000 Citrus County paid outside firm Fowler White to represent the county in several legal matters, $11,286 went toward work related to Halls River Retreat.

But the bulk of the defense was handled by Assistant County Attorney Michele Slingerland, who was particularly devoted to Halls River for two stretches that totaled about 2{ months, County Attorney Robert Battista estimates.

Given Slingerland's $71,800 annual salary, that amount of time translates to an expenditure of about $15,000. Battista points out that Slingerland did some work unrelated to Halls River Retreat during the weeks that she concentrated on that matter. She also worked on the case occasionally during the slow months of the 19-month legal challenge.

The figures add up to a clunky accounting of how much money the county spent defending its decision to allow a 54-unit condominium called Halls River Retreat to be built in Homosassa. Judge Jack Springstead struck down the commission's split decision in November 2002, and recently reaffirmed his decision when the county asked for further clarification of his judicial order. He turned down the county, saying the order spoke for itself.

A true accounting of the money spent on Halls River Retreat isn't likely, unless the County Commission requests one. In addition to work performed by the legal staff, high-ranking planning staff devoted hours to the project.

"I can't put a dollar amount on what it cost us," Battista said.

So far, one county resident _ frequent county government critic Chris Lloyd _ has requested the figures. Lloyd said he became curious about the expenditure after learning the county was almost $60,000 over budget in what it pays for outside counsel.

"That problem led me toward saying to myself, "I wonder how much money we have actually spent on the Halls River litigation from beginning to end?' " Lloyd asked. "And then, I was not able to easily uncover those numbers."

The county budget for 2002-03 initially included $100,000 for any legal work not completed by Battista and Slingerland, the two lawyers on county staff. But the county ended up spending $159,950.37 for that work, and last week the county attorney's office provided commissioners with a breakdown of why that line item went over budget.

The Halls River Retreat legal challenge made up only 7 percent of the money spent out of the budget for outside counsel. By comparison, Citrus paid the same firm, Fowler White, $32,645.45 for representation against Florida Water Services.