Monday, September 13, 2010

North Canton Law Director Paid Well For Part-time Service to City

Prepared Comments Made to
September 13, 2010

In last week’s Council of the Whole meeting, city officials remarked that zoning laws and building codes in the city have not been enforced for many years and that they now want to get serious with violators through prosecution of violators in North Canton Mayor’s Court.

In 2003, as a member of this council and Chairman of Ordinance, Rules, and Claims Committee, I begged fellow council members to put some teeth into enforcement of the city’s zoning laws without success. If you recall, I was running for the office of mayor that year and it was more expedient at that time to let politics prevail than do what was needed for the citizens of North Canton. Many of you who failed to act at that time still sit on this council. It is good to see that after seven years, you finally are on board to facilitate enforcement of zoning laws for the city.

My discussion on this legislation before you lies with who is responsible for implementation of that goal. On tonight’s agenda Ordinance No. 73-10 proposes to establish a rate of compensation and the position of Assistant Director of Law for prosecution of code violators in mayor’s court.

I believe this proposal for an Assistant Director of Law should first prompt an evaluation of what is expected of the City’s current Director of Law and the salary he is paid.

In 2003, under Ordinance 123-03, the salary for the Director of Law was increased from $16,100 to $49,000 per year. A Repository September 30, 2003, report titled, “Canton attorney appointed interim city law director,” noted that medical benefits of $7,000 were also paid prior to the salary increase.

In spite of the added cost of medical benefits, the increase in salary under that ordinance more than doubled the cost of the law director. On October 13, 2003, I voted against Ordinance No 123-03.

The current salary structure for law director does not now allow for medical benefits, but state law does mandate PERS. This adds nearly $9,000 a year to salary costs for the law director.

Ordinance No. 34-10 passed earlier this year spells out the duties and responsibilities for the position of Director of Law. The law director receives 3 weeks of paid vacation and is expected to work 16 hours per week.

A 16-hour week, at $49,000 per year results in an hourly rate of nearly $62.50 per hour ($49,000 / 784 hours worked per year). One way to better understand the present salary costs for the Law Director is to compute the equivalent annual salary if he were full time.

Using an hourly rate of $62.50 per hour and a full-time work schedule of 2,080 hours, the North Canton Director of Law receives an equivalent annual salary of $130,000. The cost of PERS adds an additional $23,725.

Why is North Canton paying exorbitant hourly rates when other governmental agencies here in Stark County are able to pay more reasonable hourly rates? The hourly rate for the most senior attorney working for the Stark County Prosecutor’s office is $39.14 per hour.

Why is North Canton’s Law Director receiving an hourly rate for legal services that is 60 per cent higher than the hourly rate received by the most senior attorney in the Stark County Prosecutor’s office?

Nearly 86 percent of the attorneys on staff at the Prosecutor’s office receive an hourly rate of $30.00 per hour or less.

Is North Canton getting the most bang for its buck for legal services?

The City of Canton, likewise, has three full-time Assistant Prosecutors on staff that receive an annual salary of $41,796 each for full-time legal services. That equates to just over $20.10 per hour.

North Canton needs a Director of Law that is full-time. The past and present arrangement of hiring an attorney whose focus is on maintaining and supporting a full-time private practice with all the attendant demands and expenses shortchanges the city that hires him/her part-time.

This is borne out in the myriad of added legal costs that North Canton has paid over and above the law director’s salary. Thousands of dollars in legal costs have been paid to the last three North Canton Law Directors for fees over and above their stated salary year after year. Legal fees in the tens of thousands of dollars and most recently legal fees in six figures have been paid to outside law firms while North Canton pays top dollar salary to a law director who is only expected to work 16 hours per week.

On a weekly basis, while in attendance at city council meetings, I am continually reminded of the fiscal crisis the city is facing yet I do not see corrective action to minimize costs and expenses.

Working as a full-time Law Director for the City of North Canton would be an attractive proposition.

A full-time attorney for the City would not need to look for clients, would not need to pay rent for office space, would not need to pay utility expenses, would not need to make payroll for support staff. These are all the expenses that make up the billing rate charged by an attorney in a private practice. This is what makes up the $156.00 per hour billing rate the law director now charges the City for hours in excess of the 16 hours he is required to work for the City.

I do hope the City moves ahead to prosecute violators of its zoning laws. I also hope City Council will revisit the compensation and job requirements of the position of Director of Law and not move ahead with passage tonight of Ordinance No. 73-10. Enforcement of city zoning laws is one of the most basic and simple of a city law director’s duties. That should be handled by the North Canton City Law Director.

Lastly, one might wonder why the city failed to initiate such enforcement of its zonings laws beginning early in 2005 when Earle Wise took over as city administrator. Mr. Wise is an attorney and worked for many years as a Stark County Prosecutor before coming to North Canton.

Given that Mr. Wise is still on the city’s payroll at a salary of $70,000 per year, why can’t Attorney Wise assist Law Director Nilges in the prosecution of the zoning violators in North Canton Mayor’s Court?

Remember, the city is facing budget deficits. Spend the public’s limited tax dollars wisely. Spend those dollars as if they were your last dollars, because those dollars may soon be our last dollars.

Thank you,
Chuck Osborne
Resident, City of North Canton