Updated: Oct 2, 2021
MOUND CITY – As the Linn County Commissioners looked over ways to save money on next year’s budget on Monday, July 26, a focal point became a discussion about costs for two lawyers who work for the county. Commissioners Danny McCullough and Jim Johnson questioned the expenses of County Counselor Gary Thompson and County Attorney Burton Harding.
Thompson was at the meeting earlier but with only budget talks on the agenda, he left after asking commissioners if there were any matters needing his legal advice.
However, as commissioners discussed the county budget for 2022, the issue of the cost of legal work on the county’s behalf and prosecution of criminals arose.
Johnson said he had one question that had been brought to his attention multiple times – the huge increase in Thompson’s budget in 2020. McCullough said he had inquired about that and had been told it was because of the construction project.
Johnson asked what the base amount was that Gary Thompson was paid and what work was included in that contract.
County Clerk David Lamb said that in Thompson’s budget for 2022, his salary was $91,000. Lamb added that Thompson bills for extra work on things like tax sales and extra hours for working on the jail project and other lawsuits.
McCullough asked how Thompson determines what gets billed and what doesn’t. Because he is a contract employee, he asked, what is his job description?
Johnson asked if tax sales had always been extra. Lamb said they had as long as he remembered.
Lamb said he really did not know what the agreement with Thompson was when the county hired him about 20 some years ago.
In a separate interview, Thompson indicated he had not been informed that his budget would be discussed at the meeting. He said that his original contract was for about six to eight hours a week.
“If it wildly exceeds that time, I will bill it at my regular rate,” he said, adding that his fee is about half of what attorneys charge in the city.
He said much of the extra work he has done has entailed work for the new judicial and law enforcement center and various lawsuits in which the county is involved. Even if the litigation doesn’t go to court, it still requires additional time to respond, Thompson said.
He added that lawsuits against the county seem to have increased significantly over the past few years, and so has what he charges the county. “It’s clearly not a part of what I’m paid for (under the agreement)," Thompson said.
Commission Chair Rick James said that they would ask Thompson about this next week.
Next, McCullough questioned county prosecutor Harding about where he stood with the additional attorney he had hired to catch up with the backlog of cases.
Harding said that when he asked for the assistant, he had hoped that the backlog would be cleared up by the end of July and he would see then where they stood. He said he did not think what he told the commissioners was that he would not need an employee after that.
Harding reported that his assistant had told him that he was handling about 200 cases this month and spending 20 hours a week. Harding said that he was doing 25 to 30 hours a week for the county to get his work done.
“I am not at a place where I can handle it alone,” Harding replied.
James asked Harding if he included the assistant in his budget for 2022, and Harding said that he did.
Johnson said that he was under the impression that the assistant was a six-month type deal.
“I apologize if that was the impression I gave,” Harding said.
“So when you were elected in, were you elected for only part-time?” McCullough asked.
Harding said it wasn’t a part-time job and that he put in the hours he needed to put in to get the job done.
Harding said that Linn County has 80 percent of the cases that Bourbon County has, and Bourbon County has two attorneys, the assistant there gets more than he is paid.
Linn County has 82 percent of the cases Miami County has and Miami County has a full-time attorney and three or four assistant attorneys, he said. The full-time attorney makes $40,000 to $50,000 more than he does, Harding said, adding that the pay scale is commiserate for what the job is.
James asked Harding if he felt he was shorting the public because of the backlog.
The prosecutor responded that he believed that there was no problem, things were being handled well and and he had a good grip on what his office is doing.
James asked if there would be a problem if there was not an assistant after July.
I think if I did not have him there would be a problem, Harding said.
He said that a caseload of 320 cases would be enormous for one person. He said he didn't feel like he could give each case the attention that it needed, for the sake of both the victims and the witnesses.
McCullough questioned why the county hires two people for a full-time job and both get benefits when they could hire a full-time employee.
Harding said the county is free to make it a full-time position.
James said his main concern was for the public. If Harding does not have somebody in there part-time, he will have to hire somebody when he cannot be at case, he said.
Johnson said that was not the way hiring the assistant was represented to him.
Harding said that, when he first took over the job following the election, he was not aware of what was needed. “Maybe my hope came across as a promise and I apologize for that,” he said.
McCullough continued to point out that he and other voters did not realize that it was part-time when they voted for the county attorney.
In an attempt to clarify the discussion, Lamb said that if the commissioners had the expectation that the county attorney would work 40-plus hours weekly as a prosecutor with no other outside business, then the county is not paying him enough.
This pay is based on the job being done now, he said, indicating that it would cost the county much more to hire an attorney to do it as a full-time job.
James said that the first five years he was a commissioner, the county attorney hired another lawyer to appear in court when he could not be there. That may have cost the county more than having a part-time assistant attorney, and by hiring an attorney just to appear in court, that attorney likely did not know the case, he said.
Are you saying that you will need an assistant county attorney in the future? James
The case load seems to show that this might be the case for the future, replied Harding. He added that, irrespective of the amount of hours, one person’s ability to be familiar with every case and make phone calls, is not reasonable.
Harding said that he believed the Kansas statute said that the county has to fund the office so all job functions can be done.
Sheriff Kevin Friend spoke in support of having an additional prosecutor in the office.
One thing the commission needs to take into consideration is that Harding has been working as a defense attorney in Linn County since 2012, Friend said. One thing to think about is the rate of conflict.
When the sheriff’s office arrests somebody that the district attorney has represented in the past, there is a conflict of interest. That case is then referred to the assistant.
“We funnel a lot of people to the assistant,” Friend said. “This conflict will continue to exist because of repeat offenders.
“If we want justice to be blind, the prosecutor cannot know the intimate details of their background. This would be problematic.”