2017-10-11 / Front Page

Budget pinch

Legal expenses more than double in 2017 – so far
BY ANDREW DIETDERICH
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER — Lapeer County’s legal fees have more than doubled so far in 2017 compared with last year — a figure that’s only going up with nearly a full quarter before the end of the year and several pressing legal matters at hand.

Numbers provided by John Biscoe, controller/ administrator, Lapeer County, show that as of Aug. 31, the county has “committed” to paying about $104,551 out of $125,000 budgeted for the year. That leaves officials the ability to work with about 16.4 percent of what was budgeted for the year, or be forced to dip into contingency funds.

By comparison, for the same year-ago period, county officials had committed about $46,780 of $125,000. Two years ago, the county had committed about $33,301 of $125,000 for the same eight months. (The amount of $125,000 is typically budgeted annually based on past legal needs of the county, Biscoe said.)

Biscoe said several contributing factors have pushed the county’s legal fees up this year, including legal matters related to personnel, contract negotiations with the 11 bargaining units represented within the county, and the counter-lawsuit filed against Lapeer County Circuit Court Judge Byron Konschuh in July.

“Every expense that might test a budget line is a concern to us in this day and age because of the reality of our overall finances,” Biscoe told The County Press. “One is always attentive to that.”

Biscoe compared legal expenses for the county with other budget line items that are unpredictable and can fluctuate from year to year. The budget for the medical examiner’s office was one comparable example he cited.

The year-over-year difference in legal expenses is principally two-fold, according to Biscoe.

“There’s been some personnel matters that we’ve had to have attorneys involved in, which we’ve done,” Biscoe said. “And secondly, we have a new addition to the expenditure page and that’s, of course, the funds we’re expensing in the Konschuh matter.”

Konschuh filed a defamation lawsuit on May 15 against Lapeer County, along with Biscoe, Tim Turkelson, former prosecuting attorney, Lapeer County, John Miller, former chief assistant prosecuting attorney, Dana Miller, treasurer, Lapeer County, and Cailin Wilson, another former assistant prosecutor. In the ninecount suit, Konschuh seeks more than $100,000 in damages.

The defendants filed a counter suit in July.

The legal battle relates to a multi-year ordeal that included felony charges filed against Konschuh regarding certain monies he received and spent while serving as Lapeer County prosecutor. The court proceedings in that case led to an agreement.

A “stipulation and agreement between the parties,” which was accepted by Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey Neithercut on March 8, 2016, read “… the parties agree that Judge Konschuh will plead ‘no contest’, that there may be an interpretation of MCL 21.44 that supports the argument that he should have reported the collection of these funds to the State or other appropriate entity for accounting purposes.”

Following a short delay of sentence, the felony charges were dismissed with prejudice and Konschuh returned to the bench in April 2016.

The case Konschuh filed May 15 — and subsequent counter-suit filed against him by the county — is in the discovery phase and not expected to go to trial until next summer.

Because Konschuh’s original suit seeks damages, the legal expenses were covered by the county’s participation in the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority (MMRMA), an organization of governmental entities joined together to secure insurance coverage that is far-reaching and available at lower cost (due to the number of participating entities).

MMRMA website states it “is the largest liability and property pool in Michigan and a recognized national leader in the field.” Nearly 400 local government entities utilize MMRMA

Biscoe said Lapeer County has been part of MMRMA for at least 20 years.

In 2016, Lapeer County paid $460,000 to be part of MMRMA, a figure Biscoe said has stayed relatively consistent.

However, MMRMA doesn’t pay for its members to effectively go on the “offensive” as the county and five individuals did when they filed their countersuit in July.

In August, the Lapeer County Board of Commissioners approved paying $2,445 to Livonia-based law firm Cummings, McClorey, Davis, and Acho (CMDA) for its work done on the countersuit.

On Thursday, the board is expected to approve paying another $9,473 to CMDA for 62.8 hours of work done on the Konschuh case, or about $151 an hour. (Jim Acho, of CMDA, has said he expects the county and five individuals to prevail and be awarded attorney costs and fees.)

The Konschuh matter isn’t the only legal matter where legal bills are adding up for the county.

In fact, Biscoe said, “It’s almost all labor with the exception of the Konschuh matter.”

Negotiations are underway or will begin soon between the county and county workers represented by 11 bargaining units.

In another bill expected to be approved Thursday, the county will pay $12,535 to Birmingham-based law firm Howard L. Shifman P.C. for work related to labor negotiations. That includes $7,153 specific to negotiations with the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. unionized employees, along with $4,327 for work done with Teamsters.

The contracts for all 11 bargaining units expire at the end of this year.

Biscoe said that when it comes to such negotiations, attorneys aren’t the ones doing the negotiating (he does that, he says), but they do provide assistance throughout the process.

Still more legal expenses are stemming from other issues called “personnel matters” by Biscoe. He couldn’t provide details due to ongoing legal proceedings, but said such matters generally relate to things like complaints.

For the third bill expected to be approved by the county board Thursday, the county will pay about $3,396 to Cincinnati-based Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman P.C. – a firm that calls itself “the largest health care-focused law firm in the country.”

Among other things, “personal matters” can require attorneys to essentially conduct investigations into complaints made by employees, Biscoe said.

So why pay the various firms instead of hiring an attorney, or “corporation counsel,” on staff to represent the county on a full-time basis?

Again, Biscoe said, it comes down to economics.

“Our position has been that doing it the way we do it, in down years, of course, our cost is down,” Biscoe said.

Return to top

Copyright © 2009-2017 The County Press, All Rights Reserved

Click here for the E-Edition
2017-10-11 digital edition

Unrestricted access available to web site subscribers

Subscribers to the County Press newspaper can now purchase the complete online and E-Edition of the paper for as little as $5 for three months. If you want a six month subscription to the online edition it is $10 and a full year can be purchased for $20.

Non-subscribers can sign up for the online version for $15 for three months, $30 for six months and $60 for an annual subscription.