County attorney fees more than doubled

Commissioners say increase is worth the expense

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Although legal fees have increased since the Moffat County Board of Commissioners created a county attorney office, the expense has been worth it, county officials say.

The commissioners appointed Kathleen Taylor as the county attorney in 2001, because the attorney who handled their legal needs, Thomas Thornberry of Craig, said he could no longer balance his private practice and meet the county's legal needs, Commissioner Marianna Raftop-oulos said Wednesday.

Thornberry did not return phone calls.

In 2002, the first full year the county attorney's office existed, the county government spent $134,153 on personnel and operating expenses. Taylor and a paralegal, Ute Murray, are the personnel for the department. Taylor was paid $74,135 in 2003, and Murray was paid $33,518.

Taylor's salary is less than the average pay of county attorney office employees in Routt County. Their attorney office has 3.3 full-time equivalent staff members, with an average salary of $84,242.42.

But from 1999 through 2001, the county spent an average of $40,270.33 outsourcing legal expenses to Thornberry.

Taylor has worked for the county since 1983, when she began representing the Social Services Department. She appeared in court on behalf of Social Services when child welfare cases arose and advised Social Services staff. During that time, she also had her own private practice and spent much of her time on juvenile and domestic law cases.

Balancing her private practice with her responsibilities to Social Services was becoming a burden for Taylor. She said she was feeling limited by her private practice. Wanting to branch out and explore new avenues in law, she applied for the county attorney position when the county began advertising for it, and was hired.

Taylor still spends about 20 percent of her time working on legal matters for Social Services. The county pays for 20 percent of her salary, fringe benefits, and operating expenses for time spent representing that department, and the state and federal government pay for the remaining 80 percent.

Taylor also advises county department heads on contracts and proposals as they request help. It is common to hear a county employee submitting a document at a commissioner meeting say, 'I had Kathleen look at it.' But she said her mandate is to represent the commissioners first, as well as to fulfill the county agreement with Social Services. Sometimes conflicts arise between county departments and the commissioners. When they do, Taylor said she cannot ethically advise department employees.

Despite having an in-house legal department in 2003, the county spent $52,606.84 outsourcing legal fees. Those expenses, Taylor said, are incurred because she is not an expert in every area of the law. Sometimes experts need to be called in.

In her capacity as Social Services representative, Taylor cannot appear in court on a child welfare case when she knows a parent involved in the case, because it could be a conflict of interest. Also, whenever a child is removed from a home, state statute requires a court hearing be held within 72 hours of removal. If Taylor is out of town, or if she knows a parent, Social Services must call in one of two conflict attorneys who are regularly used by the county.

A county attorney is a state-mandated position, so the county is required to either have an in-house attorney, or to retain an attorney for legal needs. Rio Blanco County still retains an outside attorney, but most Colorado counties have in-house attorneys.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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