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City attorney defends earning $250 an hour
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Attorney Tim Pirtle successfully defended himself against allegations by some McMinnville officials that the cost for his services is too high. He remains the city’s legal counsel.
“We appreciate the confidence that was shown by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in our continuing representation of the city,” said Pirtle.
The statement came after Tuesday night’s joint committee ended in shaking hands and a clear understanding of the true cost of his representation. However, the meeting began with incorrect information.
Mayor Jimmy Haley opened the meeting by saying he agreed to the late addition to the city’s agenda to address concerns that legal fees are approximately $90,000 a year.
“I had been approached by a couple of aldermen saying we needed to look at the cost of services being $250 an hour and the overall cost of the city attorney for a full year approaching $90,000 plus,” said Haley.
Pirtle brought an estimate of his own which put the cost at much less.
“I’m a little confused where this $90,000 a year figured comes from,” Pirtle said. “I had Mrs. Durham print out all attorneys fees from my law firm that have been paid by the city to date. That is more than two years billing and not one year billing.”
The firm of Pirtle & Little was hired in October 2010. Since that time, the cost in legal fees paid by the city has been $93,000.
“That’s approximately $47,000 a year and not $90,000,” said Pirtle. “In terms of the hourly rate, I’m a little confused as to where the surprise factor is coming from.”
The city was made aware in 2010 that Pirtle’s legal fee would be $250 an hour, as well as his partner’s fee would be $175 an hour. Pirtle says that information was included in his proposal to the city when it was seeking new legal representation.
“On the last page of the submittal, we fully disclosed my usual hourly rate and my partner’s hourly rate,” said Pirtle. “We did not take on representation of the city and then tell the city what we would be charging. We were totally up front about it before we were hired.”
The scope of work has been much larger than originally thought, says Pirtle.
“I have been very surprised by the breadth of assignments that I have received to represent the city,” he said. “Everything from vicious dogs to unfit structures to the possibility of gaining right of way for widening North Chancery Street. The Park Theatre and Blue Building have both been time-consuming projects.”
Pirtle says he regularly corresponds through email so there is a record of tasks assigned, when and by whom.
“Just out of curiosity, I clicked on my email and found I have sent or received 132 emails relative to the Park Theatre project,” Pirtle said. “It surprised me. I’m sure it would have surprised you as well.”
The firm sends an itemized billing statement to the city every month.
“Feel free to review those at any time,” said Pirtle. “Feel free to ask me about anything that we’ve done and the corresponding cost to the city in connection with it. I break my billings down into very specific detail about what the matter was. If something is lacking in a detail that you want to know, all you have to do is ask.”
Pirtle says his firm uses a law office management software system because “that’s what all Fortune 500 Companies expect” to keep up with the time dedicated to each task and present each client with a detailed list for the billing process.
Hourly rates for attorneys are usually set based on the attorney’s years of experience. Pirtle says his is based on 35 years experience.
“I did an informal survey to determine if my hourly rate, which again was disclosed up front over two years ago, is high,” said Pirtle. “The only lawyer closest to me in terms of years of experience is attorney Keith Smartt. He has two years less experience than I do. He charges $240 an hour.”
Pirtle said the survey also included contacting DeKalb County’s attorney and the city of Manchester’s attorney. DeKalb’s attorney charges $250 an hour, while Manchester’s attorney is paid a retainer of $600 a month to attend two meetings, approximately one-hour long each.
Pirtle says city officials spent $375 an hour to pay another firm for representation in the city’s lawsuit against the county over local option sales tax.
“I’m not criticizing that,” he said. “I think you got your money’s worth with $26 million over 20 years. Sometimes you get what you pay for.”
Alderman Jimmy Bonner says board members could save money if they stop questioning the advice of city administrator David Rutherford.
“If Rutherford doesn’t give them the right answer, they go to Tim Pirtle. If Tim doesn’t give them the right answer, they try something else. If you don’t want to pay Tim and you want to pay less money, maybe we shouldn’t be running to Tim. We should take our city administrator’s advice and move on.”
According to Pirtle, Rutherford’s advice is good advice for the board to follow.
“David is a licensed attorney,” said Pirtle. “His experience in municipal government exceeds mine by quantum leaps. I often consult with him particularly on the more obscure areas of municipal law. Neither one of us is shy about picking up the phone or drafting an email to TML or MTAS to save money on research. It cuts my time and cuts your expense. David’s advice when it comes to municipal law can absolutely be trusted.”
Of concern was the difference between Pirtle’s hourly rate of $250 and the previous hourly rate of $150 charged by the firm of Galligan & Newman, which was the city’s previous legal counsel.
Vice Mayor Ben Newman, who is currently an attorney at Galligan & Newman, says Pirtle’s fee is reasonable, while his firm represented the city at a reduced rate.
“From my understanding, we looked at it as a public service so our fee for representing the city was a lot less than what we could charge,” Newman said. “Pirtle’s fee is in line with his experience.”
Haley says the meeting was called for information purposes only and the facts found were acceptable.
“I don’t think this meeting was set to make any kind of decision regarding representation,” he said. “It was fact finding only. Everyone appears to be satisfied.”