By Michael Howell
Michael Hayes, longtime contract attorney for Ravalli County for Child and Family Services cases, also called Dependency Neglect cases, was blindsided recently by notification that his contract, which expires June 30, will probably not be renewed as a cost savings measure. Hayes has held the county contract for 16 and half years.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott told Hayes at a meeting last week, “We are looking at more austerity and have asked department heads to save money. We are looking at some fairly significant revenue reductions. We have asked everyone to save and it has nothing to do with the quality of your services.”
“(County Attorney) Bill (Fulbright) has really stepped up to help us fill a gap. We hope it works. It’s just a budget crunch,” said Commissioner Suzy Foss.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that he was not ready to make any decision on the issue since he had not had time to really review the County Attorney’s proposal. He said it was premature to decide as it was a budget issue and should probably be dealt with in the budget process.
Fulbright clarified that the decision was whether to renew the contract or not, which expires on June 30, but if not terminated it would be renewed automatically on a month-by-month basis.
Hayes said, “I honestly don’t think Bill can do this for less.” He said there would probably not be any cost savings in the first six to eight months due to the transition.
After that, he said, “Bill is going to be back and he’s going to need more money. He’s going to need a staff person with a lot of training on this. You will be hard pressed to save money on this,” said Hayes.
When Hayes was first hired his pay for the contract was $75 per hour. Today he charges $102.50 per hour. He told the Commissioners in a letter that this barely covers his overhead. His regular rate on other cases is $200 per hour.
“I know funds are tight, but they have been tight for sixteen years,” wrote Hayes. “I try very hard to leverage my experience to resolve cases as efficiently as possible (despite a statutory scheme that encourages time-intensive litigation). I believe you will have a very difficult time duplicating our efficiency especially with inexperienced counsel.” He noted that in the last 16 years he has not drawn any complaints about his services nor have any of his cases failed a federal audit or been disqualified for foster care funds due to violation of legal deadlines.
Running the County Attorney’s Office in 2012 cost $754,364. The budget for 2013 is $823,053. Fulbright has proposed a 2014 budget of $860,708.
Despite the large reduction in the county workforce last year, the overall budget was not reduced. The money saved for the most part went into the Reserve Fund, a rainy day fund for unexpected expenses.
This past year the County Attorney’s office has been paying Deputy County Attorney Geoff Mahar his regular salary despite the fact that he no longer worked in the office. This was due to a settlement agreement made with Mahar following the filing of a human rights complaint against Fulbright for discriminating against him for political reasons. The County has never disclosed the full cost of that settlement agreement despite being asked repeatedly for a full accounting by the local newspaper. The full extent of the County Attorney’s budget proposal has not yet been supplied to the public due to concerns about private information such as employee names. However, state law allows the release of public employees’ names, salary, job title and job description.
Commissioner Chilcott said at the meeting that he believed Hayes needed some indication as to where the Commission is headed on the issue of his contract renewal.
“I think everyone would say we are probably leaning towards giving Bill (Fulbright) the benefit of the doubt on this proposal,” said Burrows. “I think on its face the proposal looks good, but I just haven’t had time to really look at it. But at this time I’m inclined to go with Bill’s proposal, personally.”
The Commissioners discussed some of the details of the transition and Fulbright said that it needed a little more work.
Hayes said that whatever the decision, he would work with Fulbright to see that no children suffered in the transition.
“I’m very confident that both of you have the same commitment to do what is best for the children,” said Commissioner Foss. “We do too, so we will work with that. There’s no way in the world that we want a child harmed while we are trying to get this done.”