Towns, counties pay varying bills for legal services

Attempt to change hiring process in Shenandoah County blocked

By Alex Bridges

Shenandoah County leaders this week rebuffed another attempt by a supervisor to look for a new attorney.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 against a motion to advertise the county attorney position as part of a competitive hiring process. J. Jay Litten, of Litten & Sipe, in Harrisonburg, currently serves as the county attorney.

District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz made the motion at the board’s meeting Tuesday but offered no reason for her request. District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey, who supported Shruntz’s motion, made a similar request at a previous meeting that failed to gain support. Bailey at the time questioned why the county didn’t have a formal contract with Litten and whether or not the board could use a typical procurement process to find a better rate for legal services.

Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass explained Thursday that state code allows the board to appoint an attorney without setting up a formal contract. Shenandoah County supervisors voted July 2, 1999, to hire the law firm of Litten and Sipe to provide legal counsel, according to information from Vass.

How local governments procure legal services differ around the state, James Campbell, executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties, said Thursday.

“It truly is all over the board,” Campbell said.

Contracts may vary from written to verbal, Campbell added. Any agreement technically is a contract, he said. Across the state, many counties employ attorneys on a full-time basis. Other counties hold law firms on retainer.

“Some are even less formal than that,” Campbell said.

Whether or not the county could find an attorney at a lower cost remains uncertain. Towns and counties in the valley pay varying amounts for legal services. Litten works for the county at $244 per hour — 75 percent of his normal billable rate. The discount applies to other attorneys with the firm who may also work for the county. The firm bills at 50 percent of the rate for Litten’s attendance at board meetings. Litten’s rate doesn’t apply to litigation filed on the county’s behalf.

The county spent less than budgeted in the most recent fiscal period on the attorney’s services. Preliminary data show the county spent slightly more than $62,000 of the $100,000 budgeted in fiscal 2014. The current budget includes $72,000 for attorney services.

State code allows for governing bodies to appoint attorneys who then work at their request. Local governing bodies also can establish a contract or other agreement with an attorney or law firm for legal services.

In Strasburg’s case, Town Council appointed Nathan Miller, of Miller, Earle and Shanks, in mid February 2012, to provide legal counsel and paid on an hourly basis. Council re-appointed Miller in July 2013 to a two-year term. In fiscal 2014, the town paid approximately $86,000 in legal costs.

Woodstock spent approximately $52,000 on legal services last fiscal year, Town Manager Reid Wodicka said. The town pays Albert Mitchell a salary of $49,000 rather than compensate him at an hourly rate. Mitchell has worked as the town attorney since 1968 and council reappointed him in June to another four-year term.

By comparison, Warren County has a full-time attorney on staff. Blair Mitchell began working for the county in January 2007 and currently receives a salary of $115,030. Mitchell worked as the town attorney for Front Royal prior to joining the county. Prior to 1998, Warren County would have attorneys on retainer to provide legal services, Human Resources Manager Jodi Spittler said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com