Town of Waukesha Must Rein in Lawyer Bills

* Guest Opinion by Brian Tom Fischer: Waukesha Freeman 09/21/2013 p. A6

Town of Waukesha Legal FeesI am a member of the Town Board of the Town of Waukesha that has burnished its brand by bickering.

During the past three years, a lot has been said and written about the collective demeanor of the members of the Town Board, both past and present. Not much of it has been complimentary. I have some insight and perspective to offer on that subject, but not at this time.

Rather, I offer some facts about a single issue that has been of great concern to me since I was first elected to the Town Board in April 2011. The issue is the level of spending for legal services. It is way above historical norms.

In my opinion, as a fiscal conservative, it is obscene. Here are the facts.

Legal fees skyrocket in recent years

The Town of Waukesha does not have an attorney on staff. It retains private attorneys to provide legal services. In January 2011, the town parted company with the attorney who had served the town for many years and hired a new one.

For many years, the “old” attorney was paid a fixed, monthly retainer of $2,500 per month for all basic legal services, plus additional, hourly-based fees for special assignments.

The “new” attorney is paid hourly for all of his services. During the past two years, the town has also hired at least six other attorneys for special assignments, and they, too, are paid hourly for their services.

Annual spending for legal services skyrocketed in 2011 and 2012 (and during the first few months of this year). Here are the numbers:

■ 2004: $35,938

■ 2005: $37,108

■ 2006: $33,046

■ 2007: $33,712

■ 2008: $52,448

■ 2009: $42,770

■ 2010: $64,541

■ 2011: $241,281

■ 2012: $253,870

The amount of money that the town paid to attorneys in 2011 and 2012 exceeded the total amount of money that it paid in salaries/ wages to seven full-time and part-time employees in each of those years.

Other towns in Waukesha County spend a fraction of what we spend on legal services.

Several times I have tried, with only limited success, to rein in the out-of-control spending.

During budget workshops in October 2012, several members of the Town Board tried to defend a budget of $200,000 for legal services for 2013. I told them that I could not support such excess, and argued for something much less. They responded by reducing the proposed budget from $200,000 to $120,000. I considered this a measure of progress, but not nearly enough.

During a public meeting on Nov. 13, 2012, the town adopted the 2013 budget. I offered an amendment to reduce the line item for legal services from $120,000 to $80,000 and to redirect the “savings” of $40,000 to other needs, including the purchase of new fire extrication equipment. Former Supervisor Everett German and I voted “yes.” Former Chairwoman Angie Van Scyoc and Supervisors Joe Banske and Mike Laska voted “no.” The amendment that I offered did not pass.

During a public meeting on July 25, 2013, I made a motion to pay the town attorney, beginning on Aug. 1, 2013, a fixed, monthly retainer of $2,500 per month for all basic legal services, plus additional, hourly based fees for legal services for the municipal court, plus additional, hourly based fees for legal services pertaining to litigation and special assignments, subject to prior approval by the Town Board. Chairman John Marek and I voted “yes.” Supervisors Wolf and Laska voted “no.”

Banske abstained. The motion failed.

During a public meeting on Aug. 8, 2012, Banske made a motion to deny a budget amendment resolution which would have reduced the 2013 budget for legal services from $120,000 to $75,000, and redirected the “savings” of $45,000 to solving the problems with the Town Hall septic system, which some members of the Town Board, past and present, have been dragging their feet on for almost a year. Their failure to act costs the taxpayers about $1,000 per month to pump the septic tank (about twice a month) and haul the sewage to the Waukesha sewage treatment plant. Marek and I supported the budget amendment resolution.

Wolf and Laska voted with Banske to deny it.

To be fair, the town cannot control all of the circumstances that give rise to the need to spend money for legal services. But I submit that the primary reason that spending for legal services skyrocketed in 2011 and 2012 (and during the first few months of this year) is because some members of the Town Board, past and present, have a proclivity for picking and/or perpetuating needless fights. They have antipathy toward solving problems, preferring instead to spar with town consultants and contractors, town residents, developers, other units of government, and with each other. Our attorneys become involved in many of these senseless spats that benefit no one. They run up big bills for their services and send them to the town. It’s that simple.

Oh, by the way, here is a not-so-well-known fact that I almost forgot to share. The town attorney bills the town on an hourly basis, in increments of tenths of an hour, for reading newspaper articles. I’d better stop writing and hope that he is a fast reader. I’m running up the tab!

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