Talent to forgo capital spending on account of high legal costs

TALENT — Soaring legal costs that could total nearly twice the $36,000 spent last fiscal year have prompted city departments to cut back on purchases and funding for capital improvements.

"It's more like an internal tightening of the belt," said City Manager Tom Corrigan. There will be no reduction in services and no personnel layoffs, he said.

Legal consultation on Mountain View Paving asphalt plant appeals, a Medford Water Commission agreement, franchise renewals and community development agreements have caused the spike in expenses, city officials said.

Talent spent $26,000 in the first six months of the fiscal year on legal expenses. Legal costs could reach as much as $65,000 in the current fiscal period, said Corrigan. The city is represented by the Local Government Law Group of Speer Hoyt Inc. in Eugene.

City officials in April 2013 joined in an appeal of a preliminary county ruling that allowed Mountain View Paving to continue asphalt production at its site on Bear Creek just outside city limits.

Environmental group Rogue Advocates also appealed the ruling. In October, the county hearings officer deemed the operation legal, although structures built after 2002 had to be removed.

Talent has spent $31,000 during the current and previous fiscal year on legal counsel for the Mountain View issues. The city has not joined an appeal by Rogue Advocates to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals on the October ruling. But Corrigan said city attorneys will need to review filings in the case because of prior participation.

The Medford Water Commission's proposed contract for water services also has come under legal scrutiny. The previous agreement expired last year. So far, $15,000 has been spent on legal fees in the current fiscal year on Water Commission issues.

City Councilwoman Darby Stricker has urged the city to take its time to review the contract, which has gone from four to 11 pages. The City Council held an executive session to confer with counsel Wednesday on Water Commission issues, said Mayor Bill Cecil.

"I guess we just live in a society that is litigious," said Cecil. "You have to settle things, however, and that's not cheap."

A new franchise agreement for recycling and trash disposal with Recology Ashland Sanitary Service will be considered at the March 19 council meeting. That, too, required legal review.

Legal counsel likely also will be needed on medical marijuana dispensary licensing, said Corrigan. State law will allow the outlets beginning March 3, but cities must determine how or whether they will license them.

Talent's budget sets legal-fee amounts by departments. The general fund, which includes administration, finance and police, has the largest budgeted amount, at $10,000. Community Development's budget for legal expenses is $6,000.

Plans to move money into capital improvement funds for future purchases have been cut back. The city will no longer set aside $20,000 toward a new police patrol car, and the finance department will forgo putting aside $30,000 for new software.

Departments are cutting back on supply purchases and not buying smaller items, such as $2,500 for a new lectern for City Council sessions in the Community Center.

Cutbacks won't affect installation of a splash pad at Chuck Roberts Park, Front Street improvements or engineering for work on Lithia Way and Rapp Road.

Next year's budget will include more for legal expenses and may cut back contingency funds, Corrigan said.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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