By David Slone
WARSAW – Kosciusko County Commissioner Brad Jackson let the County Council know he was “really disappointed” in them after the Council voted Thursday to increase the Commissioners’ legal services budget for county attorney Ed Ormsby by only by 4%.
For 2020 expended, legal services were listed as $57,788. The 2021 adopted budget listed legal services as $58,000, while the Commissioners requested $131,000 for legal services for 2022. The 4% increase will put the Commissioners’ budget for legal services at $60,320.
During the Council’s Aug. 26 budget hearings, the Council was concerned about the steep increase and tabled the matter to further consider the idea.
At the Council meeting Thursday evening, Commissioner Brad Jackson said the past two county attorneys – Chad Miner and Mike Miner – didn’t bill the county for a lot of work they did. Ormsby took over as county attorney Jan. 1, 2021, after Chad Miner was elected as judge.
“Ed is under the exact same contract that Chad was under, which is $28,555. That includes attending meetings, just being able if (Area Plan Director) Dan (Richard) has a question or if we have a question or whoever, he’s available. If he does anything outside of that, then that’s billable hours,” Jackson said.
Councilwoman Joni Truex later pointed out that Area Plan has its own attorney.
When Ormsby and Chad Miner had their transition meeting, Jackson said Chad told Ormsby estimated hours for the county, only about 10 to 15 a week outside of the contract.
He said Ormsby is being paid the same hourly rate as Chad – $200 per hour – even though Ormsby usually charges $300 per hour.
Jackson also provided brief research he did on attorneys in the area. On average, he said they’re paid $225 to $250. The county is getting Ormsby at $200 per hour.
“Here’s some math: So you do 10 hours times 52, that’s 520 hours. Times $200, that’s $104,000. Plus $28,000 for the basic contract is $132,000. And our request for this coming year is $131,000,” Jackson said.
Ormsby did some research on two neighboring counties’ attorney fees for comparison. For Elkhart County, with a population of 206,341, their attorney fees is over $1 million a year. Whitley County, with a population of 33,964, has attorney fees averaging around $100,000 a year.
He said he’s worked with about 10 Kosciusko County departments and those are billed as additional services.
Councilwoman Kimberly Cates asked why the departments didn’t go to the Commissioners first for approval before going to the county attorney. Ormsby said under the contract, he does work for the other departments as well. Jackson said he’s not an attorney and can’t answer legal questions as that could get him into trouble.
Truex said she understood comparing Ormsby’s pay to other counties’ attorney, but “if you look at our pay structure for our county, you can’t tell me the Council is paid according to the man-hours that we put in. You can’t tell me the Commissioners are paid according to the man-hours they put in. We do not pay well, period.”
Jackson said the difference is they’re elected. Truex said that didn’t matter, they’re not well-paid positions. She said from what she heard from people, had there been a process where they were interviewed and had an opportunity for the county attorney position, there were people out there who were willing to work for a lot less.
Cates said the county pays its prosecuting attorney’s office much less per hour on a 40-hour week than the county attorney contract proposed. Jackson said the prosecuting attorney is an elected official, but Cates said only the prosecutor is elected, not the rest of his office. Jackson said they then must like working there to take less than working in the private sector.
Council President Ernie Wiggins said what everyone on the Council was struggling with was the budget was increasing by more than double what it was the year before. Jackson said he understood that, but said the county had a “gift” with the Miners underbilling the county.
Historically, Councilwoman Sue Ann Mitchell said, the county attorney’s wages went up the same as the county employees. For 2022, the county gave all employees a 4% wage, except for the Sheriff’s Office which was given 5%.
Jackson said Ormsby had asked for an hourly increase from $200 to $220 an hour when he was originally offered the county attorney position, but Jackson told him no.
When Councilman Mike Long asked if there was a search for a county attorney, Jackson said, “No. The Commissioners, I think have a right, if I understand it correctly, to pick who they want. If our backs are to the wall, I want the attorney that I want. And I don’t go for the cheapest.”
Cates acknowledged she made a recommendation to the Commissioners for Ormsby.
Commissioner Cary Groninger also spoke in favor of Ormsby and said society has gotten much more litigious. He said it doesn’t do the county any favors to hire legal counsel who isn’t good.
In a June 9 email from Ormsby to the Council and Commissioners, discussed at the Aug. 27 Council budget hearings, Ormsby said he had more special projects in his first six months than was probably normal. Those included 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.
Councilman Jon Garber asked about those special projects and how it was decided Ormsby would take those on. Long said that was his question as well as he spent a lot of time on the phone with Don Zolman, who was opposed to those projects. Cates said the Council has received calls about Ormsby working on things that weren’t really county related and that the county doesn’t have any jurisdiction over.
Jackson said when they are elected, they take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States and defend it.
Besides the fact that “a lot of other counties do the same thing,” he said, “I think there’s more to being a commissioner. It’s the whole public than just fixing roads and doing this. We don’t really have these specific job descriptions.”
He said he felt it was in the commissioners’ Purview to take a stand and that 90% of the county supported them, or more. If they don’t support it, Jackson said they could vote differently next time at the ballot box.
“We’re in unprecedented times, and our country is being attacked from within, in my opinion. And I think people need to stand up and be patriots, or all this stuff we’re talking about – attorney fees, should we do this, should we do that – it’s not going to matter because we’re not going to have a country left. It is being destroyed from within right now, and I’m proud to take a stand for our Constitution. I think it was divinely inspired,” Jackson said.
By the end of the 40-minute discussion on the attorney’s budget, Councilwoman Kathleen Groninger made a motion to approve the contract and rate as presented and Wiggins seconded it, but it died by a vote of 2-5. Mitchell then made a motion to approve a 4% increase for Ormsby, the same as all other county employees, with Garber providing the second, and it was approved 5-2.
Ormsby said that by the end of August, he already logged in 403.8 hours for the county at $200 per hour.
As he left the discussion, Jackson told the Council, “I’m really disappointed in you guys.”