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Counselors of the county

Third attorney added as workload expands

Third attorney added as workload expands

November 13, 2005|By TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Washington County's growing woes don't stop with overcrowding in schools, increased traffic on inadequate roads or concerns about sewer capacity, according to county officials.

Two county attorneys said growth here also means an increase in their workload because of more lawsuits, zoning appeals litigation, ordinance violations and requests for assistance from other departments.

In August, the County Commissioners hired a full-time assistant county attorney to take on some of the duties, giving the county three full-time lawyers. The third full-time position was upgraded from a part-time job.

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The county will pay the attorneys $253,254 this fiscal year, which is about 43 percent of the legal department's $610,060 budget.

That does not include the cost of benefits.

"There's just a lot more to do, especially in land use," County Attorney Richard Douglas said.

Douglas' salary is $99,780 this fiscal year. County Attorney John Martirano's salary is $93,974 and Assistant County Attorney Kirk Downey will earn $69,500 this fiscal year, Human Resources Director David Hankinson said.

The commissioners hired Downey full time in August.

In addition to helping with the workload, having a third full-time attorney position is expected to cut down on outside legal expenses, costs typically incurred when the county attorney's office can't provide the services required, Martirano said.

At first, at least one commissioner was unsure of the need for three full-time attorneys.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said he didn't agree with the position initially, but he approved of it later only because of the claim it would reduce third-party expenses.

The third full-time attorney position is paid for with some money that would have been used to pay outside legal expenses, Wivell said.

Douglas said the outside expenses have been cut. This fiscal year - fiscal year 2006 - the county attorney's office had $130,000 budgeted for contracted legal expenses. That's down from about $150,000 or $160,000 in previous years, Douglas said.

The third full-time attorney position hasn't cut the need for outside lawyers totally because there are certain matters for which they are required, Douglas said.

Outside lawyers are needed when the county's insurance carrier hires attorneys to deal with liability cases, in labor matters and when a particular case is expected to consume too much time for the county attorneys to be on the case.

The City of Hagerstown deals strictly with outside lawyers.

City Finance Director Alfred Martin said the city has no attorneys on staff and contracts with the Urner, Nairn & Boyer law firm in the city for legal services.

Martin said the city did a cost analysis several years ago and determined it was less expensive for the city to pay outside lawyers.

The city spends about $350,000 per year on those services, Martin said.

Commissioner John C. Munson was more definite than Wivell in his support for three full-time attorneys.

"Yes, yes, yes. Definitely," Munson said of the need for the lawyers. "The workload's really getting out of hand. The third attorney is picking up a lot of that now, and he can go to the courtroom, too, if necessary."

The county previously used outside lawyers more often for courtroom cases.

Douglas, for example, said the county is seeing an increase in animal control violations, which could require the assistance of the county attorneys.

Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County, said the number of hearings before the Washington County Animal Control Authority has gone up. The authority hears appeals of animal control violations, he said.

The authority sometimes has questions about the county's animal control ordinance and might need interpretations from the county attorney's office.

"I don't think every day we're calling them, but I'm glad they're there," Miller said.

Martirano said the three county attorneys divide legal work among the various departments, each focusing on certain areas.

"My vision is to have attorneys work specifically with different departments to make it more efficient and to build relationships with departments," Martirano said.

He said Douglas handles a lot of planning issues, such as working with the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and the Building Excise Tax Ordinance. Martirano works with Division of Public Works matters, he said.

"If it's a long-running project, we work together and bounce things off each other," Martirano said.

Downey handles much of the litigation for the county.

"We do get sued a good bit," Wivell said.

"Oh, yes," Munson said. "Most of them are frivolous lawsuits. They don't go anywhere."

Munson said he didn't know offhand what some of the frivolous suits were because many of them are handled by the county attorneys and don't make it to the commissioners.

"I think it's all relative as to how much you get sued," Martirano said. "We get brought into a bunch of different things."

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