County’s private attorneys could cost more than $250K Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff
In hammering out Summit County’s $39 million 2006 budget, the Summit County Commission this week more than doubled how much it would pay outside attorneys next year to fight several lawsuits the commissioners have become parties to.
Summit County Commissioners Bob Richer and Ken Woolstenhulme might be remembered for how many times the county was sued under their watch. Granted, the pair of politicians also inherited a few lawsuits that resulted from controversial water policies and development schemes prior to taking office in 2003.
But following a public hearing Wednesday in Coalville, the County Commission voted unanimously to increase its budget for outside legal counsel in 2006 to $200,000 doubling what Summit County spent on private attorneys this year.
"We live in a county that has very, very high values," Summit County Auditor Blake Frazier said.
During nearly 20 years serving as an elected official in the county, the government has never been faced with as much litigation as now, he added.
Potentially, the most expensive lawsuits have been filed against the county by landowners in the Snyderville Basin dissatisfied with county zoning rules.
"We have a code that’s very restrictive," Frazier said.
But battling developers who claim building densities in the Basin are too low sometimes requires expertise beyond the skills of the Summit County Attorney’s Office, Summit County Attorney David Brickey said.
"[Outside attorneys] bring a skill set and experience that the county can’t afford on a daily basis," he added.
An extra $100,000 next year will allow the county to hire cutting-edge legal advisers and expert witnesses, Brickey said.
Summit County and its water entity, Mountain Regional Water Special Service District, are currently named as defendants in 23 civil lawsuits, he said, adding that nine suits were pending against the county when he began work in the late 1990s.
"In a very short while, that number has easily doubled," Brickey said.
Though the county has litigation insurance, its insurer sometimes won’t cover the commission for riskier courtroom confrontations.
"There are some times that the insurance company does not agree with the litigation plan," Brickey said, adding that the county still must fight some cases. "[Commissioners] recognize that plaintiffs’ attorneys are becoming more creative."
Thirteen of the lawsuits pending against the county involve land-use decisions, and attorneys Bruce Baird and Michael Hutchings from Salt Lake County, filed eight of those, Brickey said.
"I think what it reflects is the degree of litigation in our community," he added. County officials can sometimes be heard joking in Coalville about who might be sued next. To pay attorneys who are representing the county in an antitrust lawsuit filed against it by Summit Water Distribution Company, Mountain Regional’s 2006 legal budget increased an additional $90,000, from $137,500 to $227,500.
Meanwhile, Summit County Clerk Sue Follett’s 2006 budget increased 134 percent so the county can purchase new electronic voting machines. "It’s becoming a very expensive proposition," Frazier said, adding that $120,000 in the county’s fleet lease budget will be used to purchase new election equipment.
Following Wednesday’s budget hearing, Summit County Commissioner Ken Woolstenhulme criticized Sheriff Dave Edmunds on KPCW for not being frugal with his budget. The remark generated a rebuttal from the sheriff. "The thing that really upsets me more than anything is when you get a commissioner on the radio running off at the mouth like that with improper numbers," Edmunds told The Park Record. "It’s ludicrous I don’t think he did it maliciously and I certainly don’t think that he got on there and lied. I think it was just erroneous information." Edmunds’ patrol division will receive $301,000 to hire four new deputies, but the sheriff’s requests to hire a new detective and traffic officer were denied. Overall, the Sheriff’s Office budget did not increase more than the county average. "The people that know about the money were extremely pleased with the budget that we presented," the sheriff said.
No tax increases are envisioned in the county next year and the 2006 budget includes a seven-percent increase in county spending, a two-percent cost of living increase and a merit increase of up to five percent. The county will also cover an eight-percent increase in the cost of employee health insurance.
Frazier expects property tax revenue next year to grow eight percent and revenue from sales taxes to grow roughly 15 percent.
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