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Jackson pursuing staff attorney hire

Commissioners in Jackson County are moving forward with a plan to scrap their policy of contracting legal services with a private attorney in favor of hiring a full-time staff attorney. At a recent work session, they gave County Manager Chuck Wooten the go-ahead to advertise the position and include more than $100,000 in salary, benefits and associated expenses in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015-16.

“I think it could potentially save money. I don’t have the figures, but I’m basing it off of what I know we’ve budgeted for legal,” said Chairman Brian McMahan, adding that he also believes that if the county hired its own full-time attorney, it would have better opportunity to give that person the training necessary to specialize in areas particular to the position.  

“It’s not going to be on day one, but after a couple of years and a lot of training, this person could be the most knowledgeable attorney there is in the county,” McMahan said. 

The idea that the move could save the county money was far from unanimous, however. 

“I’d like for someone to show me in numbers where that’s going to save us money or where that is needed to the point we’re going to put someone on full-time,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz. “Some of these legal situations we’re going to get into, is he or she going to be able to handle that or is she not, and are we still going to have to hire outside people to take care of these things this person would do?”

The county’s Department of Social Services, Wooten said, has already let him know that while they’d be glad to have the support of an in-house attorney, they plan to keep the attorney they already contract with who specializes in the types of cases DSS handles. The sheriff’s office has taken a similar position. 

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The real question would be whether a staff attorney would be able to handle the foreclosure proceedings that account for most of the county’s legal bill. Of the $200,000 budgeted for the county’s administrative legal services, about $60,000 goes to the commissioners’ contracted attorney. The rest is used to handle foreclosures. 

“The question for me is still if a county attorney who is a staff attorney does foreclosures, can we pass the cost associated with that position onto the taxpayer?” Wooten said. 

Right now, legal costs are added on to the outstanding taxes owed by the person being foreclosed on and collected when the property is sold or taxes paid. The question is whether the county could pass the cost of a staff attorney involved in foreclosure activity on to the taxpayer like it does the cost of a contract attorney. 

“I just feel like it would be a little waste of money from my standpoint,” said Commissioner Charles Elders. 

However, McMahan also pointed out the benefit the county could see from having a legal expert around to advise on even smaller matters that might come up in the course of county business, which a contracted attorney might not be immediately accessible to take care of. 

“You’re going to avoid potential lawsuits,” agreed Commissioner Vickie Greene. “You’re going to have a better-informed county staff who can go to the attorney and ask, ‘Can I do this or not?’”

Ultimately, commissioners agreed, the outcome will depend on who applies for the job. Much of the benefit of having an attorney on staff would come when that person had gained experience.

“The critical thing here is to get the right person who doesn’t want to go anywhere but Jackson County and considers this his or her home,” Greene said. “I think there is someone out there who can fill this bill and be an asset to this county. If there isn’t, then we go back to the contract thing.”

Currently, former commissioner Jay Coward is serving as the county attorney, a post he took after the commissioner election in 2010. When the new board was seated in December, they said they’d like to consider hiring a different attorney. A request for applications garnered a list of eight names — including Coward’s — to consider, but commissioners wound up extending Coward’s contract through the end of the fiscal year so they could spend some more time considering the possibility of going with a staff attorney. If they decide against the staff attorney option, they plan to revisit the initial list of applicants. 


More new positions on the horizon

Jackson County’s proposed budget for 2015-16 will include more new positions than just a staff attorney. Altogether, the budget will include 9.5 new positions for a total $344,000 in salaries and $128,300 in benefits. 

New positions include two deputies, a detention officer, a planner, a utility worker and half-time positions for a housekeeper, public health educator and social worker. Hours would be increased for a bailiff, administrative assistant and senior center manager in Cashiers, and the Green Energy Park would get half-time positions for a programming coordinator and studio technician. 

Seven new positions were added in for the current year budget, said County Manager Chuck Wooten. All of the proposed positions for 2015-16 could be added without raising taxes. 

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