Monday, September 27, 2010

North Canton Legal Costs Skyrocket as Fiscal Crisis Grows

Prepared Comments Made to
September 27, 2010

Two weeks ago, I made comparisons between the compensation rate paid to the North Canton Law Director and the rates paid by other governmental agencies in Stark County and asked why North Canton cannot do as well as those other Stark County governments.

North Canton is paying $62.50 per hour for the services of an attorney to fill the role of Law Director while the Stark County Prosecutor’s office pays $39.14 per hour to its most senior attorney. Nearly two dozen other attorneys at the prosecutor’s office earn less than $30.00 per hour.

The City of Canton, likewise, has three full-time Assistant Prosecutors on staff that are paid an hourly rate of $20.10 per hour.

Why can’t the citizens of North Canton be afforded legal services from its law director at equitable hourly rates?

Furthermore, North Canton needs a law director who is available to work more than the currently required sixteen hour work week and I believe the following clearly supports my argument.

One, the request in Ordinance No. 73-10, in its second reading tonight, to create the position of Assistant Director of Law shows that the current law director cannot do the job in a sixteen-hour work week.

Two, the current law director has already billed the taxpayers of North Canton for $4,128.84 for hours over and above his sixteen-hour week. Those charges for legal services are over and above the law director’s annual salary of $49,000. Again, an indication that the current law director cannot do the job in a sixteen hour work week.

Third, over the last five years, North Canton has paid out $414,870.41 for legal professional services. Adding in the $245,000 paid to the law director for each of the last five years at $49,000 per year results in City legal costs of nearly $660,000 ($659,870.41).

Over the last five years, North Canton has averaged spending nearly $132,000 per year ($131,974.08) for legal services. In the last eighteen months alone, North Canton has spent more than $275,000 ($275,141.85) for legal services.

North Canton needs a full-time law director at a fair salary, not an assistant law director as Ordinance No. 73-10 proposes.

The law director’s salary was more than doubled seven years ago and justified then by the elimination of the position of assistant director of law. Now the position is being resurrected.

In brief discussions in support of Ordinance No. 73-10 to create the position of assistant law director, Superintendent Tom Hampton stated that the city has about a dozen violators of zoning laws that habitually ignore letters from the city and that there are four or five cases ready to cite to mayor’s court.

Why has this effort been delayed?

Two weeks ago, I stated, “….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?”

I am still awaiting a valid response to that question?

Prosecution of zoning violators in North Canton Mayor’s Court is likely to come at additional financial costs to the city if Ordinance No. 73-10 is enacted.

I say this for the following reasons: One, it is unlikely that fines will cover the assistant law director’s anticipated two hours on each case. Two, if a case is appealed to Canton Municipal Court, the fine is even less likely to cover the assistant law director’s time. And for everyone’s information, Ohio Revised Code 1905.25 states that, “An appeal from the mayor’s court to the municipal court or county court shall proceed as a trial de novo.” This means that the case starts fresh as if there had been no previous hearing before a judge requiring more time of the assistant law director. Three, if the zoning violator fails to pay the court ordered fine, do you jail the individual at added expense?

There are other expenses related to prosecution of these zoning violations that have not been explained. Ohio Revised Code 1905.26 allows for the payment of witness fees from the treasury of the municipal corporation. Is the city prepared for expenses such as these if they arise?

Does the city have clerical help who know how to send out court summons and subpoenas? Is this expense being factored into the total cost of prosecutions? People need to know all of the costs and not just be given a snapshot of the costs to prosecute violators in mayor’s court.

The bottom line is this. North Canton must maximize the resources available to it now and minimize the costs of prosecuting zoning violators. The city can do this by utilizing former city administrator Earle Wise who is already on the city’s payroll. The city also must restructure the position of city law director for a full-time position at a fiscally responsible salary for the citizens of North Canton.

North Canton must get control of the cost of government and this is a good place to start. If this council would proceed in that manner and get of control of its legal costs, to use the council president’s words from two weeks ago, that would be good stewardship and a good use of the public resources.

Thank you,
Chuck Osborne
Resident, City of North Canton