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City legal bills keep climbing

Believing it could find ways to reduce the city’s hefty legal costs, the Bainbridge City Council budgeted $400,000 for legal services in 2003, a 28 percent reduction from the $556,000 actually spent in 2002.

The results so far are not encouraging.

In the first four months of this year, legal spending is up substantially. At the current rate of spending, Bainbridge Island would pay some $630,000 on legal bills this year, exceeding the budget by almost a quarter million dollars.

“Our intention was to reduce legal costs, but they are generally due to things that have happened in the past,” Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said Monday. “We need to understand where our legal costs are generated to figure out how to reduce them.”

City finance chief Ralph Eells presented an interim report on legal costs to the council’s finance committee Monday. It showed that legal costs through April totalled $210,800 – already 90 percent of the $234,000 the city paid its lawyers for a full year of work in 1998.

Most of that cost – $194,000 – has gone to the Bellevue law firm of Inslee, Best, Doezie & Ryder, one of whose partners, Rod Kaseguma, serves as city attorney.

After the first four months of 2002, city legal bills were $122,514, less than 60 percent of the amount for the same period this year.

As has been true for the last several years, the largest area of increase has been litigation, virtually all of which has involved land-use matters. The four-month tab for representing the city in court and other venues is just shy of $100,000, almost double the $53,000 paid for similar work in 2002.

But the cost of legal advice, which has increased only modestly in recent years, has risen this year almost as fast as litigation costs. That figure jumped from $68,000 in 2002 to $113,000 this year.

Bainbridge Island’s legal costs in 2002 were far higher than the costs in cities of comparable size, and were similar to the costs in much larger cities, such as Bremerton and Redmond.

In addition to the amount paid to outside attorneys, Bainbridge also sustained significant “shifted” costs in the form of salaries paid to non-lawyer city employees performing legal tasks.

For example, planning staffer Kathy James has been assigned to work full time on redrafting the city’s land-use ordinances to eliminate inconsistencies.

One way the finance committee hopes to pare legal costs is to eliminate one step in certain land-use appeals. An ordinance under consideration would end appeals to the council for matters involving conditional use permits and certain variances.

Under the proposal, the hearing examiner’s decision on those matters would go directly to Superior Court, or, in the case of shoreline appeals, to the state Shoreline Hearings Board.

“When those matters are appealed to Superior Court, as they usually are, the court doesn’t even look at what the city council did,” Vancil said, “but it looks instead at the record before the hearing examiner. So the city council appeal is a very expensive step, but one that doesn’t accomplish much.”

Vancil said that the city would have saved $120,000 in legal costs over the past few years had the ordinance been in effect.

She also said the council should look at “restructuring” the delivery of legal services, particularly at the possibility of bringing some of the work in-house, to an attorney hired by the city.

Bremerton’s in-house city attorney, island resident Roger Lubovich, has estimated that an in-house attorney and assistant would cost roughly $200,000 per year. Outside counsel bill Bainbridge at between $150 and $165 per hour.

But Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said this week she has scrapped the notion of having one of the Inslee, Best attorneys spend a couple of days a week in City Hall. Kordonowy said she first wants to take other management steps.

“I have put that off until we get the inconsistencies in our code removed, get more clarity on code enforcement and get the planning department running better,” Kordonowy said. “Then we will take a look at the city attorney.”

Vancil said the most difficult argument over an in-house attorney is trying to determine who that person might be.

“We have so many lawyers on the island, the question is always ‘which one would it be,’” she said. “But I think we may be there by the end of the year.”

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The nearly $25,000 a month the city is spending for in-court services reflects the number of cases, not the cost of any one item.

Of the $113,000 spent for general legal advice, the biggest users were the planning department, which has accounted for almost half of that, and the City Council, which has spent almost $20,000.

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