County attorney Ed Ormsby is pictured in the county courthouse in 2020. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
County attorney Ed Ormsby is pictured in the county courthouse in 2020. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
County attorney Ed Ormsby’s fees came under scrutiny by the County Council Thursday during the hearing for the County Commissioners’ cumulative capital development budget.

For 2020 expended, legal services were listed as $57,788. The 2021 adopted budget listed legal services as $58,000, while the 2022 requested budget lists $131,000 for legal services.

Councilman Jon Garber asked Commissioner Cary Groninger and County Administrator Marsha McSherry, “How can he justify that $76,000? I know he sent along a letter along explaining that, but he has a year under his belt” and some of those things he did in 2021 won’t be necessary in 2022.

“Right,” Groninger replied. “I know we’re working through that. I know (Commissioner) Brad (Jackson) is taking lead on that. I don’t have all the details, but I don’t want to speak to something that I’m not involved with. I know we’ve had multiple conversations to make sure we’re not spending any more than we need to.”

He said the problem is that “there’s been a lot of things happening here. Not only change in the attorney, but COVID policies and all the things that are going on, we’ve had multiple lawsuits. There’s just a lot more legal services that are being required right now, just the complexity of the COVID world. But, I know that Ed and Brad have had meetings, and I know that I’ve been on a phone call or two. I know we’re trying to get to where we can par that down.”

Groninger said other county departments were calling on Ormsby for services and it wasn’t just the Commissioners.

“But, in general, it’s just one of those things that’s just a lot more litigious world than it used to be,” he said. “But I wholeheartedly understand your concerns.”

Ormsby became county attorney Jan. 1, 2021, after former county attorney Chad Miner was elected judge. Groninger said Ormsby agreed to the same contract the county had with Miner as far as the cost per hour and the hours on the normal meetings, but “then it’s like everything else that happens outside of that, that adds cost to that, whether it’s other departments or other projects that as you’re going along that continue to add hours.”

Groninger said, in all fairness, Miner was “very, very kind to the county” from a billing perspective and he would do more pro bono work for the county.

Councilwoman Kimberly Cates asked, “But doesn’t the contract include the same thing, the same hours, and then he bills hourly in addition to the contract?”

Groninger said yes, and then Cates said, “So what you’re saying is, the same work that the prior attorney did, with the exact same contract, not including the extra hours, as this new contract, and that’s more than twice for those same hours and actions?”

Groninger said the contract didn’t change, but “it’s all the stuff outside of what was originally part of that contract.”

“Right, but doesn’t he bill that separately in addition to this?” Cates asked.

“Well, that’s part of it. All those extra hours are in this number,” Groninger said. “It’s all paid out of the same bucket.”

In a June 9 email from Ormsby to Jackson and forwarded on by Ormsby to the Commissioners and McSherry regarding his 2022 estimate of fees, Ormsby wrote that through May 2021, he had 317.30 hours of billable time beyond the fixed-price contractual services. There have been 21 weeks during that time, so he averaged 15.11 billable hours per week. “During the transition of the county attorney job from Chad to me, Chad’s estimate of total hours per week was 10-15. So the current billable hours experience has been higher than that estimate,” he wrote.

Ormsby said he spoke with Miner to compare Miner’s work with what Ormsby’s doing now. He said the difference between his services to date and previous legal services are likely due to Ormsby “getting up to speed on pending matters and current practices through research and meetings regarding various departments”; communications with state legislators regarding matters pertinent to the county; “some departments have had a bit more interaction and utilization of the county attorney than in the past”; more special projects during this period than is probably normal, including items such as the Constitutional Sanctuary County, Second Amendment Sanctuary County, COVID-19 Vaccine Passports and work regarding COVID-19 and other grant monies available to the county; his representation style may be a bit more proactive than past service; and Miner thought he underbilled his hours to the county in the past “by quite a bit.”

Based on that, Ormsby’s email states that he believes the average billable hours “should decrease” a couple of hours per week going forward as there will probably be less special projects and less transitional matters. He said he has started to implement a more streamlined process when possible, such as working with the health department so that it can issue its own notices and cover letters instead of having counsel do that.

Ormsby wrote, “I believe ‘normalized’ billable hours beyond the contractual services for next year will be between 10 and 12.5 hours per week. Accordingly, I suggest that the budget for county attorney legal fees for 2022 bet between $128,555 (10 hrs./week x 50 weeks x $200/hr. + $28,555 contractual services) and $153,555 (12.5 hours/week x 50 weeks x $200/hr. + $28,555 contractual services).”

The Council approved 6-0 the CCD budget, except for legal services so more information on how the county might be able to reduce that figure could be gathered.