News 2 I-Team: Legal fees mounting in local town

The Town of Mt Pleasant blew through their legal budget for the second year.  Town Council members made a mid-year adjustment of $250,000 to cover extra legal fees.

Legal fees started piling up for the town last year as the town fended off multiple lawsuits.

The town already spent more than $223,649 or 127.80% of the entire budget.

“I can't image sitting in the mayor's seat with the lawsuits that we've had without the team that we've had,” Mt Pleasant Mayor Linda Page said.

Right now the town is defending three active lawsuits against big developers.

Target spending on legal fees was $175,000 in the fiscal year, which runs from July to June.  The town already spent more than $223,649 or 127.80% of the entire year budget.

Mayor Page said all of those extra fees aren’t going in the pockets of the town's contracted  lawyers.

“It was to pay for the experts, depositions, and all the people coming in for the lawsuits we are facing,” she explained.

According to an itemized list of expenses obtained by News 2, expert fees alone cost the town $85,000 between August and January.  Extra fees to the town's contracted attorneys account for $82,000.  The attorneys are preparing for two separate trials in April and May. Following those trials, the fees should not be as high.

Most of the town’s legal issues deal with changes to zoning and development, changes the mayor says residents want.

“What has happened here is we have made decisions that are being settled in court. Those decisions were largely based on what we heard from the constituents, the people who live here,” she explained.

The I-Team compared to other municipalities who have contracts with attorneys.

The mayor also says the town is getting a good deal in their four year contract with Hinchey, Murray, and Pagliarini, but the contract doesn’t require the two designated, full-time lawyers to track their time.

“We're getting more than we're paying for,” the mayor said in response to questions about the contract.

The I-Team compared Mt. Pleasant's contract to other municipalities who have contracts with attorneys.

Mt Pleasant's population falls between North Charleston and Summerville.

North Charleston pays their contracted, part-time attorney a retainer of $2,500 per month and $200 per hour.

Summerville pays their contracted, part-time attorney $3,000 per month and $150 per hour.

Mt Pleasant pays each contracted, full-time attorney a retainer of $16,458 per month and $185 per hour.

The City of North Charleston also has three attorneys on staff.  All the communities hire extra lawyers when needed for specific cases.

While lawsuit costs account for roughly one percent of total spending, they represent money that could be used to fund other projects.

The town set aside money in a reserve expecting lawsuit costs to pile up during this fiscal year.  From the town's perspective, they had budgeted the money for these extra fees, though it wasn't included in the line item they adjusted in January.

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