Legal costs mount in city-county skirmishes

July 15, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

The Washington County government has been billed about $45,000 for outside counsel and a consultant for three ongoing legal disputes with the Hagerstown City Council, county officials said Monday.

Meanwhile, Hagerstown has spent at least $36,000 on expenses related to the disputes, including payments for John Urner, the city attorney, and Ed Donahue III, a Landover, Md., financial rate consultant, Hagerstown Finance Director Al Martin said Monday.

"I guess it is just an unfortunate cost of doing business," Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell said Monday.

He said it bothered him that the city and county governments have had to spend taxpayer money to try to resolve the issues.


"Lawsuits should not have been necessary," Mayor William M. Breichner said. "It is sort of like suing ourselves because we are, regardless of what anyone else says, part of Washington County."

Breichner said he believes the issues - which include an annexation policy, a flow transfer agreement and the city's water and sewer rates - could have been resolved through negotiations.

"The county made every effort to resolve these issues through negotiations in good faith with the city and we continue to negotiate regardless of the pending litigation," Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said. "It is unfortunate that we have had no other choice but to resort to the courts but one of the purposes of the courts is to resolve disputes where negotiations are unsuccessful."

While the county had been billed about $45,000 as of this week, additional costs and bills are expected, County Attorney Richard Douglas said Monday.

The estimates do not include as yet uncalculated staff time for city and county employees.

The city contracts for legal services with the Hagerstown firm of Urner, Nairn and Boyer, which worked on the three disputes.

Last week the council agreed to a proposed settlement with the county that would, if adopted by both parties, resolve lawsuits the county filed against the city over a joint flow transfer agreement and a city annexation policy.

The County Commissioners have not taken a formal vote on the settlement, Wivell said.

In addition to two lawsuits the county filed against the city, the commissioners supported the Washington County Water Quality Advisory Commission, known at the time as the Washington County Water and Sewer Advisory Commission, asking the Maryland Public Service Commission in an Aug. 2, 2002, letter to review whether the city's water and sewer rates were reasonable and justified.

The proposed settlement would not affect the Public Service Commission case.

The county litigation costs could have been even higher, Douglas said.

Scott Schubel, a Hagerstown attorney who is on the advisory commission, has been doing legal work pro bono for the county on the flow transfer lawsuit, Douglas said.

The Home Builders Association of Washington County paid an additional $15,000 of the expenses in the annexation lawsuit against the city, Douglas said. The association was an early co-plaintiff in the suit but it was later dropped as a party to the lawsuit for technical reasons, Douglas said.

The lawsuit also lists the Home Construction Corp. and Paul Crampton Contractors Inc. as co-plaintiffs. Crampton and Home Construction Corp. have development projects that would be affected by the annexation policy.

What fights cost county

To date the Washington County Commissioners' bills for expenses relating to three disputes with the city of Hagerstown include:

  • About $35,000 to attorney Peter Greenburg of Greenburg, Spence and Taylor of Rockville, Md., for legal work relating to the annexation policy lawsuit the county filed against the city.

  • About $1,600 to Hagerstown attorney William Schildt for work relating to the annexation lawsuit.

  • About $7,600 to Baltimore attorney Ronald Decker for work on the Maryland Public Service Commission complaint the county filed against the city.

  • About $1,230 to consultant Exeter Associates Inc. of Columbia, Md., as a rate consultant for the regulatory agency complaint.

Source: Washington County Attorney's office

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